LeoLeo is a duo of talented long-time friends, Vanessa Wheeler (songs/guitars/vocals) and Sarah Hope (drums/electronics/production). Their music ranges from dreamy soundscapes to fast-paced rock songs. As someone who has had the opportunity to see them perform live, I can tell you that in addition to great songs, powerful arrangements, and infectious musical energy onstage, another thing that really stands out is the guitar work. There is a richness and subtlety to Vanessa Wheeler’s guitar playing and her live guitar tones that is uncommon. In the article below, Vanessa tells us about her pedalboard and more, plus we get to see a brand new video from LeoLeo!
What kind of pedalboard is this, and what is your signal path?
This is a Pedal Train “Fly” in white which I don’t think they make any more. It’s my main board for everything; and I can carry it onto a plane if I need to. I plan on building a smaller non-MIDI board, but for most live applications, I would love MIDI to be included in everything because I have to do the job of singer and guitarist, and that gets very cumbersome sans MIDI. My signal path is as follows:
Fox Pedals Kingdom > Wren and Cuff Suppa Phat Phuk > Earthquaker Devices Cloven Hoof > Earthquaker Devices Organizer > Chase Bliss Audio Warped Vinyl MKII > Eventide H9 MAX > Strymon BigSky > One Control Crocodile Tail Loop MIDI capable switcher
The Kingdom and Phat Phuk are ODs, but the Kingdom is a very tweakable, transparent OD, where the Phat Phuk adds character and some nastiness to the signal. The Phat Phuk is actually more of a boost that adds girth and sizzle and bark to your tone, should you desire that!
The Cloven Hoof is, to my ears, a very transparent sounding fuzz that lets you hear the pitch of what you’re playing, is detailed with chords (pretty necessary for me), and can still get totally crazy if you need it too.
The Organizer is an octave pedal with a lot of character. It’s noisy and has these great artifacts in the signal. It has a lot of little weird fairy sounds, too. As a solo player, I use it to fatten up my signal when I need a little extra bass, and also for giving life to sections that need something extra special.
The Warped Vinyl is another one of those “character” pedals. It’s so completely versatile that I haven’t even delved into its depths. I use it to create movement and to change timbres from section to section.
The Eventide H9 Max I mostly use for delay and other modulation sounds. It’s compact and massively versatile. Delay and reverb are essential for me, and so is MIDI.
I had a blueSky and loved it, but I wanted the massive bank of features and MIDI capabilities with the BigSky! It’s integral to my sound, and allows me to really shape each section of a song with the reverb. I particularly love the Magneto settings and pre-delay. Who knew you could create so much movement with a reverb pedal!
What are your main guitars and amps, and what do you like about them?
I tend to use my Bilt S.S. Zaftig (Galaxy Rose) and my heavily modded Fender Offset Special (Porpoise) the most with my Vox AC10C1. The Bilt just sounds killer when I need something loud and rocking, but can get detailed very nicely as well; it’s super light, and has these great Curtis Novak, unpotted humbucking lipstick pickups in them.
The Offset Special is also extremely lightweight, and has these custom Lollar Thunderbird pickups in them; well rounded, single-coil sound but without the hum. I like this guitar for when I need to fill up a lot of space as it’s really well balanced across the frequency spectrum. Also, the pickups have a nice creamy breakup and sustain nicely.
In regards to amps, my AC15C1 sounds killer but it’s generally loud for my live needs so I use it for recording and my daily indulgences.
I’m frequently trying out guitars and have really warmed to this new Fender Japan hollow body Mustang for some funkier and more single coil sounds; it’s been pairing really nicely with my Quilter 101 head and Benson Amps 10” Jensen cab; really great for detailed, intimate gigs.
You use a lot of different electric guitar techniques on stage, including fingerstyle, really dynamic and rhythmically precise picking, and straight-up digging in and rocking. Also, there’s a complexity to the music, with interesting chords, movement, and melodies. How did you learn all that? What is your music education background?
I taught myself to play guitar initially, and then took classical guitar lessons. I was always naturally inclined towards songwriting, but I didn’t know anyone to play with, so I tried to fill out the sound as best I could with the variety of techniques you mentioned. I’ve never sought out anyone to emulate with my playing, but I grew up with a lot of Brazilian music, jazz, and more complex pop from bands like Steely Dan. I became really interested in hand percussion when my cousin visited my family from Brazil (he dabbled in it); some of that snuck into my playing as well. That’s sort of the beginning of my musical background, but it became more informed by classical voice-leading, and generally much freer, after my time in music school. I can’t say I always use it, but I try to create cohesiveness when I can. I generally have a very visceral connection to playing guitar; the way the instrument vibrates with whatever chords and vocal part I’m playing is very seductive to me, and I particularly enjoy fitting my voice within a chord to feel the whole thing vibrate. This is why, in part, my music is generally slow moving; the physical vibrations and emotional narrative of my songs are often working together.
Are there any guitarists (or other musicians) that have really inspired you and/or informed what you do on the guitar?
My mother taught me to play and still hears music in a way that baffles me. Aside from her, I don’t listen to very many guitarists, but Egberto Gismonti is really the only exception. I do, however, really admire Jeff Beck’s playing.
You seem to be a pretty prolific songwriter. Have you ever gone through a dry spell when you were not writing as much as you wanted to? If so, how did you get back in the creative groove?
My education has really helped me to get through the blocks in my songwriting. Honestly, having those small techniques has helped me quite a bit. Other than that, some techniques that have proven helpful are not playing or writing for two weeks straight (it’s painful), playing somewhere you don’t usually spend time in, and setting boundaries for the song/composition to reign yourself in. I also think it’s essential to keep a notebook or some kind of log of your musical ideas/lyrics before you lose them forever!
LeoLeo has an EP coming out soon. Can you tell us about it?
Our upcoming EP, Side Two, is compilation of songs and “reimaginings” of cover songs we recorded and mixed while living in different cities/states. As such, the songs allowed us to explore more electronic sounds, and I was able to exercise my composition muscles, which I loved! My bandmate Sarah mixed a number of the songs on the EP as well!
And the first single that will be released from the EP is “Iowa,” right? I’m excited to be able to link to the debut of the video for that single!
Yes! The video’s concept was co-imagined by the directer, Spencer Balliet, and myself. It is essentially about how we sell ourselves things and/or ideas that we don’t need, and there is a sort of reveal at the end.
Where can we go to keep up with you and LeoLeo online?
Our Instagram page is the one I use most. It’s definitely more of an insider look into the nerd world of Vanessa. Sarah handles our Twitter and that’s mostly her world. Our Facebook is primarily announcement driven with more updates about upcoming shows, features we’ll be on, music releases, etc. You can buy our music anywhere, but Bandcamp has a deal where you can get our entire released discography for a discounted price.