First, a spoiler: Luke Sommer has an alter ego and it’s called Modern Human. As a contemporary homosapien, Luke implements a cutting-edge songwriting and recording process. He writes, records, mixes and produces the music in his Ojai, California studio, even designing the artwork and photography, as well as directing his own videos. In short, Luke’s work ethic puts the rest of us lazy guitarists to shame.
Fortunately, Modern Human’s recorded material has the compositional weight to justify Luke’s supreme efforts both visually and musically. Latest album Broken Simulations is an intricate amalgamation of spacious rock influences, taking the best from Smashing Pumpkins’ guitar textures, Thrice’s raw aggression and Muse’s synth-driven riffery.
“I like guitar players who don’t necessarily use the instrument in the traditional sense, players that have taken such a common instrument and turned it into something that sounds unique,” Luke says. “I like it when I know who’s playing, just by the sound: that’s always incredible to me.”
These guitarists include Billy Corgan, The Edge and Stephen Carpenter, each of whom have lent a sonic hand in sculpting Modern Human and the expansive, dream-like textures which proliferate throughout its compositions. While Luke covers all the bases in the studio, it’s his guitar work which stands out as being among the most inspiring aspects of the recordings, partly thanks to the exquisite gear choices he has made over the years.
On Broken Simulations, Luke needed only one guitar: his stock Epiphone Elitist Les Paul. He’s a big fan of the bridge pickup for cutting through the mix, but also employed the neck for several of the darker rhythm tones on the album. However, while the sound is pristine, the guitar itself isn’t quite as well-kept…
“They make these Japanese Epiphones to order, essentially, so I had to wait over a month to get it,” Luke explains. “A few days after it came, I wanted to be safe so I purchased strap locks, but installed them the wrong way. I was standing with the guitar and ‘bam!’ It just fell straight to the hard floor. Sadly, it suffered some damage, but it still functions pretty well. Now I don’t baby it any more; it has character.”
Also loaded with character are the album’s tasty amp tones, whether clean or overdriven. This all comes courtesy of Luke’s Egnater Tourmaster 4100, coupled with a Bogner 4×12 angled cab which is loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s. “I love the versatility of the 4100,” Luke says. “It has four channels and they all do a different thing.”
The channels of choice for Broken Simulations were Clean Vintage 2 and Overdrive 1, the former approximating a clean or overdriven Fender DeVille, the latter a Marshall JCM800 crunch. Luke loves accompanying the Clean Vintage 2 channel with a delay for lead sounds, while Overdrive 1 is primarily used for distorted rhythm tracks which still retain clarity even at higher gain levels.
While he has got a fine selection to choose from, Luke is reassuringly modest when it comes to the reasoning behind his pedal choices. “I love effects, probably because I’m not a super technical player,” he says. “I like how I can play a few notes and the effects just create this kind of space or emotion around that.” Certainly, Modern Human’s work is littered with splashes of effects-tinted colour, which serve only to enhance the compositions on offer.
Luke’s favourite pedal is the Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man and it’s all over the track Broken Simulations. “I wanted these mechanised sounds, to remind you of the future… hover cars, UFOs, etc.,” Luke explains. “In the ‘you’re erased’ parts you can hear this underlying whirring sound. That’s the Memory Man being manipulated.”
Another effects-laden moment comes in the form of the lead guitar line in Undress, which combines the Dr Scientist Cosmichorus with the Blackout Effectors Whetstone phaser and the Memory Man to create a spaced-out, yet organic modulation which forms the crux of the song’s chorus. Indeed, Luke certainly appears to be a fan of boutique stompboxes, also citing the ZVex Woolly Mammoth as his fuzz pedal of choice, which can be heard in the glitch-heavy intro to Human Dominoes.
In what is essentially a one-man-band, the songwriting process which goes into Modern Human cannot, in theory, be defined as a collaborative effort, but that’s not to say that Luke doesn’t write from different perspectives. A song can start from a drumbeat, a riff or even just an acapella melody but, however it begins, the composition’s progression is something that provides a form of catharsis for Luke along the way.
“Since it’s just me, it’s difficult to ‘jam’ a song,” Luke explains. “It becomes almost a stream of consciousness thing, or a build it as it comes method, with revisions and changes as the song starts to form. For me, the songwriting process can be just as creative as the notes, melodies and emotions that come out of it.”