On weekdays, Michael Selser is a dental technician at a family practice in Gretna that his father and brother established in the 1980s. On nights and weekends, he plays guitar in the noir-rock band Whisper Party and its ‘90s cover counterpart, The Dial Up Tones. A lifelong musician and tinkerer, at some point, he discovered that polyurethaning and sanding guitars and glazing and polishing full-contour zirconia crowns had quite a few similarities. We talked about what he’s built and how he gets his favorite sounds.
Did you build the main guitar that you play onstage?
I didn’t cut the wood. This was originally a Mexican “Fat Strat” that I got from Guitar Center when I was 17. It was black. The first thing I did to it was, with my dad, we sanded it down. Then I had my friend paint it. He did some wild designs on it; and I feel bad about it to this day, but less than a year later, I was like, I’m gonna do something else. So I sanded down his painting. A little bit’s left over, on the corner here but I had a bunch of Rolling Stone magazines, so I cut them out and collaged them onto it, covered it in polyurethane, sanded it down. It’s a lot of the musicians I was infatuated with at the time. There’s the White Stripes, The Who, Zack de la Rocha, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan’s on the jack. Amy Winehouse is there. There’s more on the back. It yellowed as soon as it cured, which I like. There’s even a couple spots where the paper was flipped up or crumpled. I’ve got larger photos on the back: Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, a Spider-Man comic. Eventually I replaced the neck. This is a Birdseye maple and rosewood fretboard with mother of pearl inlay dots. Recently, I took the frets out, refretted it, and finished the frets down. I changed the nut to a bone one that I filed in. In the body, I’ve changed all of the electronics. This is a [Seymour Duncan] Pearly Gates pickup on the bridge, a Danelectro lipstick tube in the neck and, in the middle, is a split coil from a Fender Jaguar that I had, so it looks like a humbucker and it bucks the hum (it’s noiseless) but it sounds like a single coil. I replaced the pickguard, the knobs with these mother of pearl looking knobs, and I even replaced the handle on my whammy bar out of a piece of maple that fell off of a tree in my front yard. I grabbed it and whittled it and I replaced the saddles in the bridge. I kind of built it. I modded it out.
Did you know you could do all of that?
I learned as I went along. When I was a teenager, I had no idea what I was doing. Around 30, I started learning about electronics and how it all actually works. I have another guitar that I use that I’ve replaced all the electronics on, leveled the frets, crowned them, and dressed them, changed the nut. I have a couple basses that I’m working on—one that I took the frets out of, like Jaco Pastorius, and turned it into a fretless bass. I’m a tinkerer.
How do you know when an instrument is done?
I just know it. I don’t know if I’m going to change anything else on [my main guitar]. Maybe I’ll change the bridge if the tuning gets really squirelly but I look at it and it feels done. Maybe I’ll get tired of the way it looks and change something again. It’s not really done but it’s done enough that I don’t think about changing it very often. I’ve been working on it for 15 years.
What does your pedalboard look like?
Let me show you! The guitar goes straight into the volume pedal, which I mostly use for swells and expression. From the volume pedal, it goes into my Saturnworks 5-port effects loop. When all of the loops are turned off on the Saturnworks, the chain is just guitar-volume-pedal-amp. It’s got five switches with five send and return ports on it. I don’t have to deal with hum or balance on one foot, as much. I don’t have to reach in the back for another pedal and I can turn a lot of effects on at one time, with my multi-effects pedal. So, the first one is just a reverb pedal: one of those $40 Hohner ones. It sounds great. The second is a small Hohner compression pedal. I just use that with the humbucker for the percussiveness of the strings to come through or for when I switch to the single coil pickups, ‘cause I get volume loss—if I turn on the compressor when I switch from humbucker to single coil, the volume stays about the same but it’s also compressing so that my attack can be a little lighter and the signal comes through more and it controls the tone consistency. In the middle port, I have my wah pedal that’s usually set to halfway, so just the really high frequencies are rolled off. It’s a Dunlop Cry Baby Wah. It’s always on, so I don’t have to step on it, I can just bring it into the signal with the looper. Station four goes to my Line 6 HX Effects [floor processor]. I have a lot of effects on here.
Do you use all six pedal preset functions on the HX Effects and the M9 Stompbox Modeler effects unit next to it too?
The Line 6 M9 is the old one that I had, which I was actually using until recently. Line 6, first they had their line of multi-effects pedals that are kind of separate. The big, green pedal that I have on my board, that’s the Line 6 DL4 [MkII Delay Modeler]. That’s the delay pedal. Then there was a purple one that was the filter effects pedal, a blue one that is the reverb, and a gold one that’s distortion and fuzz, so the M9 and the HX Effects have all of those effects from all four pedals in one thing. That’s why I got that—takes up a lot less space. What I have, for the basic Whisper Party preset is: a cave reverb; a deluxe phaser, for a little talkiness (the phaser with a single coil sound reminds me a lot of David Gilmour and it’s one of my favorite tones—it sounds breathy, like it’s playing underwater). Delay is a big thing with Whisper Party, so I have three delays on this channel; I use the sweep a lot. As it’s playing, it goes through the EQ range—it’ll heighten the higher frequencies and roll them off into the mids and then the lows. It’s almost like it goes through a wah from all the way down to all the way back, or all the way back to all the way down. Then I’ll use a regular transistor tape delay. If I want a sound to get really chaotic and confusing sounding, I’ll put them on at the same time. I recently also started using a reverse delay. For distortion, a lot of the time, I’m using a fuzz. It’s like an [Electro-Harmonix] Big Muff bootleg, hard-to-find version called the Pi, and I like to use a harmonizer that’s harmonized up a fifth.
That doesn’t sound at all like you’re playing guitar! On a recording, I’d assume it was a keyboard.
That’s what I was going for. I wanted something that sounded like an organ. You just gotta be careful with chords because, with some chords, a fifth harmony is bad and it turns into a dissonant note. I do rely on the effects for atmosphere. If the mood we’re going for is you’re in a church, I want it to sound like we’re in a church. If the mood we’re going for is you’re in a cave, I want it to sound like we’re in a cave. (I’m really just saying reverb names but that’s kind of the idea.)
We’ve only truly gone into detail about half of what’s on your pedalboard—did it used to be an absolute behemoth?
It did but really just because I was really into The Mars Volta. Omar Rodríguez[-López]’ pedalboard is small nowadays, but when I got into them, The Bedlam in Goliath had just come out and they were full, crazy, insane, prog, nightmare nuts. At the time, he had like two or three pedalboards and the main one had 30 pedals on it. It was huge. I was 20 years old. I grew my hair out and I built a pedalboard just like his, with my dad. I had 13 pedals, that’s what I could fit. It was a huge pain in the ass. I had to have help to carry it in and carry it out. It was fun but I’m glad not to have to deal with that now.
I’ve got tickets to see The Mars Volta play on the 18th at the Orpheum.
Our whole band is going to that concert. We’ll see you there!
Whisper Party’s self-titled debut album releases on all platforms on May 17th. For more info check out whisperpartymusic.com.
Photos by Sabrina Stone