TROYKA - Interview with Chris Montague

Have you ever wondered what the future of jazz music might sound like? The London based trio TROYKA is well known for pushing the boundaries of traditional musical concepts. TROYKA released their second album “Moxxy” to critical acclaim in August 2012. In May 2013, the trio finished recording their third album "Ornithophobia", which will be released in 2014. We interviewed Chris Montague, TROYKA’s guitarist, and wanted to learn more about the process of recording the new album, his influences and his participation in the GUITARMAGEDON trio.

Described by THE GUARDIAN newspaper as “a fascinating conjunction of dance-derived beats, abstract electronica, ambient music, Schofield-like guitar funk, and John Zorn-ish free-iazz”, TROYKA are among the UK's most promising new jazz acts. The band consists of Chris Montague (guitars and loops), Joshua Blackmore (drums) and Kit Downes (organ). Their melange of jazz and garage rock, juxtaposed with loops and electronic musical elements, is inspired by a shared love of APHEX TWIN, New York saxophonist TIM BERNE, and the blues-jazz-rock groove of legendary STEELY DAN, as well as the music of WAYNE KRANTZ. 

Chris, Thank you for taking the time to do an interview for GuitarMania. We loved your 2012 release “Moxxy”, which, in our view, was one of last year’s most exciting jazz releases. We understand you have just finished recording a new album. Can you please tell us about it?

This is the third time we have gone into the studio as a trio and it was definitely the most fun.  I think we have refined the way we record in the studio now and have worked hard to take the best parts of what we do live and distill them in the studio.  It's always a great challenge to get the same energy when recording as you would naturally get on a gig.  The first 2 albums are very much a document of where we were as a trio in a live sense, most of the tracks were first or second takes with very little overdubbing.  This time around we have been checking out a lot of production techniques and want to make a more gradual record with more attention to the fine detail of our sound and delivery.  I am so pleased with the result, it is by far the most interesting music we have captured in the studio to date. 

What is its title and how long did it take you to record the album? Where did you record it? Presumably you recorded live?

The title will be "Ornithophobia" and is loosely based around my irrational fear of birds which I acquired as a chid (sounds very dark doesn't it?).  A lot of the tracks have bird like themes, some dark and twisted, some very beautiful.  We took a little bit longer to record this album as we had a very unique opportunity to record in a studio for free for 3 or 4 days with great equipment.  We recorded at Eton College which is near Windsor and we are very grateful to them for granting us access to the studio there.  After we tracked all the parts live we began editing things down in my home studio, choosing the best takes, stripping out sections that didn't work etc.  This is where we chose to use quite a few overdubs to broaden a lot of the textures and add some interesting percussion tracks and piano which really make the whole album sound uniquely Troyka.  We didn't feel the pressure to document accurately how we do things live so much on this album as we worked so hard on the previous 2 releases to do this.  The new album sounds so good, we're really proud of the production and overall feel.

When will it be released?

We don't have an exact release date yet but it will be early 2014.  We also have a live recording of the Troyk-estra (our big band) which needs to be scheduled for release also.

What equipment did you use on the new album? Does the equipment you used in the studio differ much from what you are using live?

My live set-up has changed very little in the last 5 years.  The only difference in recording situations is that I always use 2 amps in stereo.  It took me a long time to figure this out.  I became very frustrated with the recorded tone I was getting through my headphones, it sounded too pointy and small.  I began experimenting and found that using 2 amps in stereo with condenser mics further back from the speakers really broadened the tone and made it feel more like the live tone I get.  We were fortunate to work with an upcoming engineer called David Ashman who spends a long time getting the perfect drum and guitar sound.  Here is his website:

The equipment I used was:

Fender strat
Musicman 410 HD running in stereo with an Egnator rebel 20
Line 6 DL4
Line 6 MM4
Hughes and Kettner Tube factor
Earthquaker Bit Commander
Voodoo Labs pedal power


You are also using loops and electronic elements in your music. Was it difficult to integrate these elements (also technically) into your playing? What were the challenges?

I use this a lot live with Troyka to fill out the backgrounds when we improvise together to create atmosphere.  The main challenge is always to make these things sound musical, organic and part of the overall picture.  Im trying to get rid of pedals and use them as sparingly as possible.  I hate listening to guitar players that rely on pedals as opposed to their hands to get a sound.  The person who really inspire me in this area was Bill Frisell.  I think he uses pedals and electronics in the most seamless way possible, it always augments what he has written/played and never becomes a gimmiky thing.  I also never use the loops as a backing track, it is only ever as an atmosphere.  I also love Brian Eno's ambient music, it is incredibly beautiful how he creates big landscapes.

You have also just recorded the TROYK-ESTRA, which is the big band alter ego of TROYKA. Can you please tell us what the project is about?

This project began when my friend Nick Smart who is head of Jazz at the Royal Academy of Music asked if I could write a big band chart for a performance by the Academy big band at the London Jazz Festival.  We had always loved the idea of adding lots of instruments to the Troyka sound.  In 2012 we were commissioned by Jazzwise Magazine to write a set of big band music to be performed as part of their 15 year anniversary festival at Ronnie Scott's.

We were very fortunate to be asked to perform this massive project at Cheltenham Jazz festival in May 2013 which we have recorded and will be releasing as a live album next year.  We are going to start mixing this soon and on first listen this music  is very special.  We have some of the most exciting young players on the London scene who played on this gig and it captures some very unique moments.  It is like Troyka but way, way bigger and all the players really understood what we wanted in the improv and delivered in a scarily good way.

 We would also be most interested to hear what kind of music you are playing with Alex Roth's new guitar trio GUITARMAGEDON, consisting of musicians Alex Roth, Chris Sharkey, and yourself?

This was a one off recording we did over three days last August in London.  We had never played before as a trio and Alex had written some minimalist type structures for us to play and then some directed free improv pieces.  It was very interesting to see how the other 2 guys approached improvisation.  This is being mixed by Sharkey at the moment and hopefully will be released soon.

Please tell us about your influences? What did you listen to when you grew up and what were the artists/records that made you want to become a musician?

The first player that made me want to play guitar was Jimi Hendrix when I was 10 years old, I became obsessed and tried to learn everything by ear that I could.  My Dad also had some very cool BB King and Peter Green albums that I also sat with for hours trying to imitate.  My Mum had a really good collection of Chic albums so I would try and mimic all those amazing Nile Rogers funk parts and a lot of the Prince stuff too.  Later on I got into John Scofield because he had all these highly sophisticated lines but still had a foot in this blues world that I'd grown up with.  Through Scofield I went back to his influences such as Jim Hall, Pat Martino and Wes Montgomery.  I suppose the album that made me want to be a musician was Bill Frisell.  I remember the first time I heard it I couldn't believe how elegant, simple and yet sophisticated it was.  I had also never heard anything so confrontational and artistic before.


 TROYKA is an outstanding example of advancing traditional concepts of music by combining traditional with electronic elements and musical experimentation. We would be interested to learn more about your approach to composition. How do you create your melodies and grooves - both as a soloist and as a band?

 Everything I write starts on the guitar.  I might find an interesting melodic/rhythmic fragment that I can expand.  I had a very good teacher when I studied at the Royal Academy, Barak Schmool.  He would show us how to create tension and release using rhythm, (if 2 parts are in unison it has less tension than if they are in the gaps of each other etc.)  He would give us great examples from composers such as Django Bates and Steve Coleman who really know how to exploit these concepts in their music.

In Troyka I always try to write like this, we have a joke that every Troyka tune need to have the 'golden' formula: 3 sections and 1 tempo shift!  This isn't too far from the truth actually.  Im always looking for interesting points in the writing to use for improvisation.  Often this requires us memorizing quite complex rhythmic patterns and finding a 'clave' that we can hear in our heads while improvising.  I also do not like the idea that someone comps (plays rhythm) whilst someone solos over the top.  I think it is much cooler to all solo together to create a bigger tapestry of sound, almost like the early dixie land bands did, I think this is a much harder and more sophisticated thing to achieve as a band.   I also love the music of Aphex Twin and we definitely tried to emulate these dense electronic soundscapes quite early on.

The writing also has to be balanced.  If we have something very intense and dark, we need to have something melodic and fragile to bring the listener with us and keep their attention.

If I read correctly, you are located in London. Would you say that London is a good place for an artist to earn a living as a musician?

I would say London is a great place to learn your craft, not necessarily a great place to earn a living.  I've been very fortunate and have managed to always play with good people and look after myself fairly well, it requires a lot of hard work and perseverance though.  London is a real melting pot and all the musicians (not just jazz) are very enthusiastic about new sounds and collaborating with each other.  You can go out every night and see some incredible music made by very passionate people.  London is not always a hospitable place for artists and it requires some ingenuity to make a living from it.  I think this is probably good for the quality of the art and music however.

Being located in continental Europe we would be interested how you see the jazz scene in Great Britain at the moment? And where do you see the future of jazz music in general?

The jazz musicians in the UK are always pushing and finding new ways of playing.  There is a very healthy disregard for convention at the same time as respecting traditions and where music comes from.  All of the musicians I speak to are very keen to export what they do to Europe as there is the perception that the audience for this sort of music is bigger there.  In the UK there has been a lot of attention from overseas in recent years as the word has got around that the musicians from the UK are producing some exciting music.  I also think the UK musicians are very adaptable and are keen to collaborate with other musicians from abroad like never before.

Any chance of seeing TROYKA live on the Austrian stage anytime soon?

We currently have no dates in Austria but would love to come and play for you (any idea for venues and promoters?)  We have some dates in Europe coming up so if you're nearby we'd love to have a chat:

Upcoming gigs
06/07/13  -  Love Supreme Festival - Brighton
17/08/13  -  Canary Warf Jazz Festival - London
08/09/13 Jazz Villettes, Paris
26/10/13 Frankfurt Jazz Festival, Germany

We wish you all the best for your new record. There is a very interesting and vibrant jazz scene in Austria, and I know that our readers will appreciate reading your answers. Thank you.
Thanks so much, here are a few websites for your consideration:
All images © TROYKA/Chris Montague