In Search Of Tone: Mathew Bethancourt Of Josiah

Josiah has made quite the comeback and one that rivals Lowrider’s from the first PostWax series of Blues Funeral Recordings. Getting the opportunity to talk to guitarist and vocalist Mathew Bethancourt was very rewarding. Not only is he in the outstanding Josiah but he also creates incredible music in Kings Of Frog Island, Cherry Coke, The Beginning and Mathew’s Hidden Museum. Music is just pouring out of this guy!

Mathew Bethancourt / Josiah - Photo by Joanne Marie
Mathew Bethancourt / Josiah – Photo by Joanne Marie

He goes into great depth about the gear he uses and how the songs of these bands come about. It’s amazing that I’m still learning so much after all the interviews, but Mathew’s creative process is inspiring, and I appreciate the time he took to talk to me.

Thank you Mathew for taking the time to discuss how you create the amazing music of Josiah. I like to start these off with gear. I love your guitar tone, especially on The Bitter End. Can you tell me a little about the amps you are currently using?

Hey! Thanks for the kind words. Always a pleasure to talk about music and gear.

Right now I’m using a late ‘70s Marshall JMP 2104 50W 2 x 12 combo and an Orange Rockerverb 50W 2 x 12 combo. The JMP has been with me since the first Josiah album. It was a friend’s amp and he used to loan it to me for studio sessions or as a live back up. I was using a non master 1969 50W Marshall head with two 4 x12 100W Marshall cabs. I like to drive the amp for my main gain, and this set up would often be too much for the venues Josiah was playing. I switched to an early ‘70s Marshall JMP 2203 Mk2 100W master volume head. Still too much ;-). Then a non master 1974 Marshall 2100 50W combo. I began to use the 2104 combo more and more. I could dial it in anywhere, really quick and get a great sound every time. My friend Midge just gave up in the end and sold it to me. Good man!

Right now I’m using a late ‘70s Marshall JMP 2104 50W 2 x 12 combo and an Orange Rockerverb 50W 2 x 12 combo…

The 2104 combo drives so sweetly. I know Rory Gallagher was a fan in the late ‘70s/ early ‘80s as well as all the Thin Lizzy guitarists at the same time. They morph into the early JCM 800’s but you have to be choosy. By the time Marshall gets to the JCM 900 model it’s all over for me. I struggled to use any other amp to get my sound, until I played a 50 watt Orange Rockerverb Mk I combo during a practice session. So much like a Marshall. The clean channel is nice and glassy, but the dirty channel brings that golden tone. A massive sound and one of the heaviest builds I’ve ever had to carry around. Crazy heavy, but a great partner to my Marshall. The sound of the two of them together is something to behold. Immense doesn’t cover it. Monolithic!

I also have a 1972 Orange OR120 head. Considered fitting a 60/120 switch, just like the Sound City 120 amps had at the rear. Sacrilege perhaps, but it would get more use if it had the half power switch. Another very loud and totally beautiful head. I’ve owned all variants of the Sound City heads and a few old Hi-Watts, Vox, even had a Roost at one point. All great amps but they have way too much head room. They just didn’t provide the sound that felt good for me. I’m all about that classic Marshall sound. Brown tone all the way.

Mathew Bethancourt / Josiah - Guitars & Orange Amp
Mathew Bethancourt / Josiah – Guitars & Orange Amp

I’ve been struggling settling on a distortion tone I’m happy with and constantly switching between amp distortion and various pedals. Do you get your gain from the amp or are there pedals you used for distortion?

It’s always been about the gain from the amp, that’s why I eventually landed on the 50W JMP combo. Those amps are still seriously loud when driven, but OK for most venues to handle due to the master volume. I had so many issues live with non master and even 100 watt master volume Marshall stacks in the past. The point of that sweet, amp driven tone would often be too loud for the venue.

I like to roll my volume off for a cleaner sound. I’m always using the volume and tone controls when I play, switching between the pickups and generally using the pick to create light and dark. I use a wide range of sounds from rolled off woman tone, through to some dark mid tones, then right on through to a Jimmy Page treble attack. If I want more, I add an Angry Troll Linear Boost or a Big Muff, depending on where I want to go with the sound. I even use an old Jim Dunlop 535Q Wah to give a solo extra cut if it needs it. The older 2 x 9v battery model. The new versions sound pretty poor in comparison.

It’s always been about the gain from the amp, that’s why I eventually landed on the 50W JMP combo…

I’ve personally been obsessed over reverb/delay for some time now. What modulation pedals are on your board, and do you have a favorite?

My board has just 2 delay pedals at the moment. I’ve never been into using reverb pedals. The Rockerverb is there if I need a nice spring reverb, but I don’t usually go there. I do like experimenting with delay pedals though. I use both the Way Huge Echo Puss Analog Delay and a SIB Mr Echo. The slam is pretty sweet on the SIB Mr Echo, and I quite like the subtle drive it gives out if you push the pedal volume and the addition of an expression pedal can be cool. It does remind me of a Watkins Copicat or a Memory Man. I tend to use it for a big delay sound and real trippy stuff. The Echo Puss is taking care of slap back live duties for now, but it’s capable of so much more. Again, you can go for a trip with that pedal.

What about guitars? Do you have a handful of or 1-2 go to guitars you have used for years?

Over the years the Gibson SG has always been at the heart of my guitar collection. I briefly played a Les Paul, but then I bought an early ‘70s SG Special with P90s. That was my only guitar until it was stolen in 93 along with a seriously great pedal collection. No one wanted Electro Harmonix, Carlsbro, Coloursound, Roger Mayer, Vox and Dallas Arbiter gear back then. I loved it all and used to pick up a lot of it for next to nothing.

A Cherry Red Gibson ES 335 replaced the stolen SG Special. Again, that one guitar was played on everything right up to The Beginning album This Is… recorded in 99. I was using a cleaner tone for that album with a Carlsbro Suzz pedal for boost. My head was deep into the West Coast sounds of Cipollina and Kaukonen back then. More of a glassy, vibrato approach to the tone. Still love those guys. Sublime players.

Then I formed Josiah in 2000 and reverted back to the SG, as the semi hollow body of the 335 wasn’t handling the Marshall stack and Big Muff so well. I still have the early 2000 white custom Gibson SG. That’s been my main guitar since 2004, but I like to switch it out for others depending on the track or the part. I’m a massive fan of my 1973 Guild S100. The stock Guild pickups and the position of the tailpiece make for a very unique guitar. That was my Cherry Choke era go-to guitar. You can get some great harmonics out of that beauty, and it also has a very useful coil tap too. Those two guitars are all over We Lay On Cold Stone.

Over the years the Gibson SG has always been at the heart of my guitar collection…

My Sunburst Epiphone Sheraton Pro II was also used on the album for either its big, fat semi hollow tone or its chiming cut. Another great guitar with individually coil tapped pickups. I’m not sure if all Sheratons are made as well, but I was blown away by how much guitar you get for the money. Better than a lot of guitars that are 3 times the price. Plays great and looks beautiful.

Recently I also bought a DeArmond JetStar to back up the Guild but that’s got its own thing going on. Sounds more like an SG with P90s. Gives off some strong Iommi vibes when cranked. It likes to be down tuned too. I’ve been using that a lot whilst writing the next Josiah album. I’m also having a lot of fun playing an early ‘80s Korean Squire Telecaster. It’s always interesting switching to a Fender style guitar when you’re more of a Gibson player. Strats are OK but it’s the Tele’s that do it for me. I end up playing a lot of MC5 and bad versions of early Zep era Page runs when I pick up the Telecaster. I’m tempted to record with it, so I have a good reason to play it live. Keep it fresh.

I’m a firm believer in all guitars having riffs, songs or interesting sounds in them. I’m always excited when I play a new guitar. I never quite know what I will tease out of it.

Mathew Bethancourt / Josiah - Marshall Amp
Mathew Bethancourt / Josiah – Marshall Amp

What tuning do you use in Josiah, and following on from that, what brand and gauge strings do you use?

The Josiah tunings are all over the place. I stick with Roto Blues 10-52 as I like that heavy bottom and light top range. They just works for me. I used to use Ernie Ball Super Slinky 10- 52 in the early days but I’ve found the Rotosound work better for me. I even went as heavy as 12’s at one point but that was hard work on the fingers. The Roto Blues take the bends better and they harmonically sound great.

I have all my guitars set up for different tunings, some are standard and some drop down 2 or 3 semitones. I’ll also drop the E string when I feel like it or use open tunings. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tab of one of our tracks transcribed correctly. Keep it secret, keep it safe.

Is there a piece of gear you have had for a long time and will never get rid of?

Both my Marshall combo and my ‘70s EH Big Muff. It would be like losing a limb parting with either of those sonic creations. Also, my Guild and SG, plus the Wah. All of them are irreplaceable. Life wouldn’t be the same.

I stick with Roto Blues 10-52 as I like that heavy bottom and light top range…

What is your songwriting process like when creating songs with Josiah? Does it differ from The Kings Of Frog Island, Cherry Choke, The Beginning and Mathew’s Hidden Museum?

The Kings… was a little different as it was a studio project. On the whole, Mark Buteaux would have a riff, or a drum pattern already recorded. especially on the first album. Then I would create a song from that starting point, write more riffs and the lyrics, then ask for new drum parts or sound effects. It was far more conceptual. Mark was the producer, and I conceptualised the albums. By the time we recorded III, I was all over the album playing various instruments and writing way more than I. It was great fun while it lasted.

Josiah, Cherry Choke and The Beginning are 95% my songs with input from the band regarding feel and arrangements. The band always brings their personality to the tracks. I tend to write a lot of music. Constantly scribbling down lyrics and song titles or recording riffs and progressions into my iPhone. Sometimes complete songs land in my lap. I’m lucky like that. Then the music gets to choose a musical host. That’s how Josiah came to reunite for an album. The tracks being written were all Josiah tracks. They demanded that band.

Mathew’s Hidden Museum is another scene entirely. That’s me writing, playing, recording and producing completely alone in my home studio. No place to hide, no time limits, no compromise – and it’s very different because of that. The music has either been let loose or chained by my own limitations. Interstellar Smoke Records will be releasing the first Mathew’s Hidden Museum album in late 2022, so you can listen and decide for yourself. Either way, it’s another vital channel of creativity for me. If I couldn’t get the music out of my mind I’d go insane.

Mathew Bethancourt / Josiah - Guitars, Amps & Pedalboard
Mathew Bethancourt / Josiah – Guitars, Amps & Pedalboard

When I play guitar, I have many off days. My tone doesn’t sound good or I’m messing up simple things and easily get discouraged. What do you do if you’re having an off day to get inspired to play again?

Hey! It happens to every musician. Sometimes I get bored of hearing myself play the same runs, licks or chords over and over. Other times I pick up the guitar and it’s just great fun. I never practice, I always play for fun. I often find something by mistake and then have to learn it back. I get to play every day and usually end up writing new ideas down. If I’m really bored of my own playing, I just switch to another instrument.

I’ve been playing a lot more drums the last few years. And my 3-finger piano playing is at best acceptable, but it’s a new challenge. I also dabble with an accordion and a melodica. Anything that makes a sound, I’ll get on it and squeeze something out of it. Sometimes plugging into a different amp or pedal can inspire your playing. Or attempting to play something written by another musician. Twist your head a little. I’ve never been any good at learning to play covers or mimicking other guitarists’ solos. I only get so far and then go off on a tangent because I was inspired by the first three notes.

There’s some other world ethereal shit happening in that recording. You know! The ghost in the machine…

Start to finish We Lay On Cold Stone is great! The Bitter End or Let The Lambs See The Knife are two standout tracks for me personally. Is there a song or even part of a song that you are particularly proud of?

Thanks very much man! I’m really pleased you like the record. I’m proud of the entire album but if I had to choose one song I’d go for (Realise) We Are Not Real. That track was originally written back in 99 and it covers a lot of ground musically and lyrically. It’s been with me a while and I wondered if it would ever find a host. But it got older, wiser, a lot heavier and finally found a home with Josiah. There’s some other world ethereal shit happening in that recording. You know! The ghost in the machine. The sounds in the music that were unintentional but it’s clear to hear. Musical spectres, sonic ghosts. Like I said – the entire album came out great. We are really pleased with it. Hopefully it will resonate with many folks and grace the speakers and earphones of many a music lover.

Josiah 'We Lay On Cold Stone'
Josiah ‘We Lay On Cold Stone’ Artwork

What are you currently listening to for enjoyment these days?

The Valerie Project LP led by Espers main man Greg Weeks is getting heavy rotation on my turntable at the moment. It’s an alternative acid folk soundtrack to the cult Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. I’ve also been listening to Taraban How The East Was Lost. Those guys made a very special album. It will be great to see them live one day soon. And I’ve been very privileged to hear new tracks from the yet to be finalised Colour Haze record. Stefan and I are old friends, and we usually play our new music to one another in advance of any release. Sometimes demos too. Their new album is sounding amazing (as ever).

keep on having fun playing and experimenting, everyone’s sound is individual to them…

Thank you so much allowing me to pick your brain, I really appreciate it. Is there anything else you would like to add about future projects, tours or anything in general?

My pleasure! Thanks again for inviting me to take part. And a massive thank you to all Josiah fans, old and new, who have welcomed us back so beautifully! The response to the new album and everything we did back in the ‘00s has been mind blowing. It means a lot to us all.

And a message to any young musicians who read this far – keep on having fun playing and experimenting, everyone’s sound is individual to them. Even if you use the same gear as another player, you’ll still sound like you. Even though there are only a limited amount of beats, notes and progressions to use, you’ll still sound like you. The sooner you relax into being you, the sooner you’ll be creating sounds that make ‘you’ happy. If you dig what you do, then others will dig it too. X

The new Josiah album We Lay On Cold Stone is out now as part of the PostWax series through Blues Funeral Recordings on various vinyl pressings, digipak CD, and digital download.

Label: Blues Funeral Recordings
Band Links: Facebook | Bandcamp | Instagram

Interviewed by: Josh Schneider