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Entries Tagged as 'journalism'

One from The Vault – interview from BassRocket.com

May 13th, 2008 · Comments Off on One from The Vault – interview from BassRocket.com

In the process of transferring my website over to this lovely shiny new format, I removed a lot of dead links to reviews and interviews that were no longer online. Fortunately, I knew a few of the writers, and so was able to get hold of transcripts of the original interviews direct from them.

One that I found was this one from BassRocket.com – the site itself no longer exists, but the article was written by Andy Long, a music journalist that had interviewed me a number of times for different magazines, and always asks interesting questions, the answers to some of which surprised me (I tend not to have pre-written answers to interview questions, so often come up with stuff on the spur of the moment that I look back on and learn from 🙂 )

It’s also interesting to see how few of the projects that I listed as ‘upcoming’ in that article actually happened… The planned recording and gigs with Eric Roche is particularly hard to read about, as Jan 2005 was when Eric was in his short remission period between his first bout with cancer and when it came back and tragically took his life. We talked a lot through his recovery time about our plans for gigs and recording, but nothing ever happened. One of the few big regrets of my career.

Anyway, have a read of the article, it’s from a few months after Grace And Gratitude came out and it’s a good ‘un!

Tags: cool links · journalism · Music News · site updates

Bruce Cockburn interview from Nov '99

March 25th, 2008 · Comments Off on Bruce Cockburn interview from Nov '99

Back when I was writing for Bassist magazine in the late 90s, I mainly used interviews as a chance to meet up with my musical heroes. The bass ones were easy to sort out, but on a couple of occasions I used the magazine connection to interview my guitar playing heroes as well, and did this interview for Guitarist magazine. Given that Bruce Cockburn is my favourite musician of all time, and probably the songwriter whose songs have had the most real-world impact on my day to day life, it was always going to be a little hagiographic, but I think I’ve kept the ‘you’re amazing, tell me about being amazing’ type questions to a minimum.

This is my original transcript of the interview, which is a fair bit longer than what actually got printed, I seem to remember. It was just after Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu had come out, and was conducted in the restaurant of some hotel in Ealing, I think. Bruce was a fantastic interviewee, and this is one of my favourite interviews to read back. A couple of my questions are a little crassly put, but it was 9 years ago, so I’ll cut myself some slack. I’ve met him a few times since, and he’s always been a very friendly, funny person to meet…

Bruce Cockburn Interview
(Reproduced from the November 99 issue of Guitarist Magazine)

Impossible to pigeon-hole, but equally brilliant whether finger-picking ragtime instrumentals or giving it what-for on a distorted electric, Bruce Cockburn’s artistry continues to climb 30 years into his career.

Once described by Melody Maker as ‘Canada’s best kept secret’, singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn has, over the course of 25 albums, built up a substantial following world-wide and is a bit of a superstar in his native Canada. He’s had 20 gold and platinum records, won 10 Junos (the Canadian version of Grammies), and does seriously big tours, but remains a cult act in the UK (albeit a cult act capable of playing the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank last time he visited these shores!)

Bruce’s body of work ranges from lilting country folk to the dark brooding punk and reggae influenced political ranting of his eighties albums. His recent move to the Rykodisc label has been accompanied by a shift back to the jazzier acoustic sound of his late seventies albums. Always focused, Bruce is one of very few singer/songwriters to last 30 years with no embarrassing period whatsoever.

Initially inspired by Scotty Moore and Buddy Holly, followed soon after by Chet Atkins and Les Paul, his guitar playing encompasses a huge range of styles, taking in ragtime and blues influences but combining them with jazz, country, rock and avant-garde in a unique melange that perfectly supports his heart-felt prose.

– When did you start playing

I started playing when I was 14 which was 1959.

– Why?

Scott Moore – the early Elvis records. Buddy Holly… well, the sound of the Crickets – I didn’t really associate it with particular people it was just music. That’s what got me excited about music. I started taking guitar lessons at the age of 14 and was very quickly introduced to other kinds of music. The teacher I had was into country swing like Les Paul and Chet Atkins, and all the tunes that were on Willy Nelson’s ‘Stardust’ album were the tunes that I learned to read music on the guitar with, to learn chords and all that stuff. The first tune I can remember actually working out off a record was ‘Walk Don’t Run’ by the Ventures. It just kinda moved on from there – I got interested in jazz pretty quickly, and through that moved into folk-blues. By the time I got out of high school I was doing some rudimentary finger-picking and was starting to compose music, and dabbled in writing poetry. I went to Berkley for three semesters out of a four year course, and did what all honourable Berkley students that are any good do – drop out! Last year they gave me an honorary Doctorate so I finally got my degree. When I was at Berkley I was shown by John Lennon and Bob Dylan that you could actually put poetry and music together and make something.

– So Dylan was the catalyst?

That’s what interested me about it. I had no interest in imitating the songs I liked – old Elvis songs, ragtime tunes – those were the product of a time and place and an experience that I had no part of so it made no sense to try and write those songs. It was OK for me to sing them, that made sense, but not trying to write anything like it. But it hadn’t occurred to me that you could do anything else until Dylan came along, and it was like ‘Oh wow, you can actually say stuff.’ So I started writing songs. When I left Berkley I joined a rock ‘n’ roll band in Ottawa where I had grown up, made up of a bunch of folkies that I knew, and we all were writing songs at that point, and that’s when I really started taking it seriously. It kinda grew from there’

– So that was the beginning of the solo career?

Yeah, except I did it with my wife at the time. At first I wasn’t really on the road – we were on such a small circuit, that it didn’t qualify as on the road. There were clubs in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal that I could play and the occasional folk festival, and in the early says that’s what I did. I was in bands for the second half of the sixties but had started to do solo stuff in the latter part of the 60s. ’69 was a fairly busy year for me as a solo artist, and that’s when the first solo album was recorded. In the spring of ’70, I bought my first truck, I was started to get paid for gigs so I had some money. It cost three thousand dollars, which was a big deal at the time. And we put a camper on the back of it, and spent the next five years driving back and forth across the country, staying with my in-laws or my parents during the winter and hitting the road again as soon as it warmed up. So for 7 or 8 months out of each year we’d be on the road.

– Was there a sense of the emerging Canadian sound?

There WAS an emerging Canadian sound, but there wasn’t really a sense of it. People started thinking about it after the fact.

– It must have really pissed off the Americans.

That Canada had all the best song writers? I don’t think anyone thought about it – in those days you didn’t say you were from Canada – most Canadians were embarrassed about Canada. Most Canadians didn’t know that Joni Mitchell was Canadian, or that Neil Young was Canadian. You’d say it to people and they’d go ‘What? Nah, that’s bullshit!’ It’s like ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth???’ Same thing.

There were a lot of us around that time who thought this was a bad thing who were right behind Joni, Neil and Gordon Lightfoot, who was the first to opt to stay in Canada rather than to move to the US. It was a cliche of Canadian culture that in order to be accepted by Canadians you had to prove yourself somewhere else first – you could do it in England or the US, but not in Canada.

But there was kind of a wave of nationalism that we were all affected by at the time that said it shouldn’t be that way, so I just thought I’m going to build up whatever audience I can in Canada before I think about going anywhere else, and then we’ll see where it goes. Over the next ten years – it took about that long to build a strong national audience, but by the end of the 70s I did have that, and I was also starting to work outside of Canada, a little. But hardly in the states at all – it was Italy and Japan at first. The states did really start to get interested in me until ’83 when Stealing Fire came out, when we started to do national tours.

– Didn’t you get some adverse press for Rocket Launcher?

No, it got no adverse press, it got nothing but positive response – it blew my mind! The Religious Right to my mind said nothing about it. I got the odd letter from somebody who were disappointed in it. One woman I remembered writing saying how could I write an anti-American song like this – her husband was a jet pilot and didn’t I know what awful things the Russians were doing in Afghanistan? Well yeah I do, but it doesn’t excuse what you guys are doing in Guatemala, and it’s not your husband who’s guilty, it’s other people.

I got the occasional letter like that, but what I also got was a huge amount of air-play for that song, which I hadn’t really had before – the one exception being Wondering Where The Lions Are which got played in the US as well as Canada. WWTLA was the first song I’d had that got big time national air-play in Canada and it got on the Billboard chart in the US. But whereas it was the start of something in the Canada, in the sense that the next few records I put out also got a lot of air-play, in the States that didn’t happen, so with Rocket Launcher it was like starting all over again. And that time it did take, and it’s been progressively better since then.

– How did your music develop through the 70s?

The finger-picking that I’d learned to do was based on Mississippi John Hurt and Manse Lipscomb, mainly, and other old blues guys like that, but I’d also learned how to play more complex chords. When I went to Berkley I went majoring in composition, with guitar as my instrument and I had this notion that I’d be a jazz musician – I hadn’t thought about it one way or the other, but that seemed like the thing you do when you went to Berkley! And then I realised part way along that I wasn’t prepared to do the amount of work, and I wasn’t interested enough in jazz harmonies per se to pursue it the way they were teaching it. But I still loved jazz and continue to love jazz, and whenever there’s an opportunity jazz creeps into the music – more now than ever, partly to do with increasing command of the instrument over the years, and partly to do with exploring options as a writer.

– Did you continue to study?

I didn’t study formally in anyway – I taught myself this and that. But I listened to a lot of stuff – you mentioned the world music thing – through the late 60s and into the 70s I was listening to music of every culture that I could get my hands on. I was particularly infatuated with European Medieval and Renaissance music – you can hear that in the records. I was also listening to African records, Tibetan Ritual music. I guess I got started on that track at Berkley because a lot of the jazz players were interested in Arabic music. That interest in Eastern music was prevailing in the jazz scene at the time and I got totally captivated by it.

So the guitar style was partly having started with a blues style that featured alternating bass with a melody over the top or a droning bass with licks over the top, the melodies and the licks got more complicated, and the harmonies never were as simple as blues harmonies so. So on top of that would be a song like Joy Will Find A Way, where the guitar part is an attempt at duplicating an Ethiopian thumb harp piece that I had on a record – it’s not the same notes, but an attempt to get that feel into it. I found that a lot of African folk music suited adaptation to finger picking guitar, which wasn’t lost on the Africans either, but I hadn’t heard African guitar music then. It was obvious to me that you could take these complimentary drum and xylophone type instruments and translate that music onto the guitar, and that became part of the style and then everything I heard that I like really.

And then in the 70s I discovered Reggae and then Punk came along and revitalised rock ‘n’ roll for me and so then I started getting those elements in there to.

– Was electric guitar an anathema – with prog rock etc.?

I used it a bit – all through the 70s there was also the Stones, don’t forget, so there was goo guitar around of the sort that I related to as roots based. And there was good jazz guitar, although there was a period in there where I didn’t listen to much rock or jazz – I completely missed David Bowie, for instance, until Heroes in the late 70s, then I went back and discovered the rest of what he’d done. Then I started to look into rock music again. Yeah, I missed a lot, but I also gained something in the freedom I had from that influence at that particular time. When the influence came around it was affecting me as a more developed artist.

– So the addition of electric stuff happened around Humans, or Inner City Front…?

Inner City Front was really the big one. There’s electric guitar on many of the earlier albums, but it didn’t start to take over until I was playing with heavier bands with more drums and more emphasis on rhythm, and then it was an irresistible pressure to pick up the electric guitar – to hear myself on stage for one thing – but also to keep up in intensity with the other guys. There was a big learning process in there. on Inner City Front I got away with it, but there a lot of learning in front of people going on. I was applying the same techniques to the electric as I used on the acoustic, but there’s a big difference in touch and it took some time to kind of get the feel for it.

– Was there a parallel between the music and lyrics in that development?

The earliest album that has a real noticeable amount of electric guitar on it is Night Vision, which is also a dark kind of record and I hadn’t thought about it but I guess that’s true, it does contribute to it, though unconsciously – I must contribute to what I was doing. The choice wasn’t unconscious the connection was’

The tone of the albums really changes with Humans, which also coincides with my divorce, and the end of a decade and a point in my life that was partly triggered by the divorce and partly not where I spent a lot of time looking at how my inner being related to the big picture, the cosmic picture, and it was time to include other people in that search for an understanding of relationship. To put it in simple terms, as a christian if you’re gonna love your fellow mankind you gotta know who they are, you can’t love them in the abstract. So it was time to kind of be among humans. It started with the album humans and the songs there come from those first travels in Japan, and Italy – the first ventures outside of North America, and the greater understanding of human interaction on mass which translates into politics, and that carried through into inner city front, and all through the 80s.

– Your one of the few artists who was around in the 80s, when all the world’s singer songwriters went electric, who has no embarrassing period…

I was pretty careful, but I look back on certain of those things with a little embarrassment, but only a little – more the live gigs that the records cos there were more chances taken on stage than in the studios.

– Influences –

The Clash, Bob Marley that whole new wave thing had a broad non-specific effect but I remember thinking on Trouble With Normal, on Tropic Moon, and I could figure out how to get the right feel, so I remember thinking, ‘what would the Clash do with this?’ so I did what the Clash would’ve done with it, that was a conscious decision in the studio – it doesn’t sound very much like the Clash at all, but you can hear that mental process’ Bob Dylan was still an influence – Blood On The Tracks – he hadn’t had much of an influence on me for years and then Blood On The Tracks came out and that was a big album for me. Life in general – at that point I was starting to write life and looking outward’

– But there’s a musical sophistication that goes beyond those influences, more of a Peter Gabriel kind of vibe –

That has partly to do with the producers on that album, although I listened to a little Peter Gabriel, though I don’t think it was as much Peter Gabriel as listening to the same things that he was listening to and translating them. The producers, John Goldsmith and Kerry Crawford, who worked on World Of Wonders and Big Circumstance – their understanding of album production was bigger in scope than I was used to working with, and that’s one of the reasons why I was interested in them. So they got bigger sounds, and used more instruments and tried out more ideas, the music lent itself to that. At that point I’d been in Central America, and been to the Caribbean a bunch of times and I had more direct influence from those cultures – see how I miss you, down here tonight, world of wonders – on that song the imagery is all European, but the music is Afro-Caribbean.

– Influence of the Stick?

That had something to do with it as well. That was the thing that interested to me about the Stick. I was excited when I discovered that I knew someone who played it. With Hugh Marsh I’d explored the possibilities with Violin and Guitar, then Hugh’s brother Ferg (Fergus Jemison Marsh), turned out to be this incredible Stick player who was very Tony Levin influenced with the bass strings, but added on all this treble stuff that you don’t hear Tony Levin doing, and it seemed to me that there would be incredible textural possibilities with that part of the stick and guitar. So that became a big deal.

During the period that I was writing the material for Stealing Fire, I’d rented a little office space that I’d go to to practice and or write each day, and I had a little drum machine so I’d set up drum rhythms, and I have the lyrics and I’d be pulling at the lyric and the rhythms and that would spawn the guitar parts, and I got Ferg coming over and work on Stick parts that would go with the guitar parts, and then I’d modify the guitar parts if he had something better than I did. So the presence of the stick was in there early on in the process of building up to ‘Stealing Fire’.

– There are strong polyrhythmic possibilities with the Stick –

and then when you start adding drums to that the trick is to get people to start leaving things out because you can get so many things going at once.

– Guitars – who were you listening to?

I don’t think I was really listening to guitar players much through there. Since about 1960 I haven’t really tried to learn anything off a record in a ‘OK, how he’s doing this’ kind of way. I get influenced by the feel of things and I sort of take what my ear will grasp and then I mess with it, so the learning process has been slow, but also kind of less conspicuously influenced by any one person that it might other wise has been.

– And that helped to maintain originality?

It has had that effect, I don’t think I did it on purpose that was, it’s just my nature to do things that way. I would hear things I like, and any time I heard one I’d either find a way to do it my way or it would just become a kind of general influence – there were lots of people, Mark Knopfler was the most conspicuous fingerstyle electric player around, but I was always sort of slightly uncomfortable with that, even though I really liked his records, everyone would be telling me that I played like Mark Knopfler, once I started playing electric guitar, and it kind of was a little irritating, so I made a conscious effort where possible not to sound like Mark Knopfler – there was already one of him and we didn’t need another one.

– You started fingerpicking on the electric before Knoplfer, what lead to that? Naïvité’?

There was no question in my mind of ever picking up a pick – there was no reason to. I’d played electric guitar when I was in rock bands in the 60s, and I’d had lots of experience playing electric guitar with a pick. But through the 70s I’d developed enough facility with the guitar that it just seemed like OK now how do I apply this to this other instrument, and by the end of the 80s I’d sort of almost learned how to do it!!

– It gave you a unique sound, and a continuity between the electric and acoustic.

They’re not polls apart

– sometimes it’s pretty hard to tell which you’re playing.

yeah, depending on which guitar I’m using – the National Resophonic that I’ve got is an electric guitar but I’ve got it strung with acoustic gauge strings and it has this chunky sound that has much of the attack of an acoustic.

– What electrics were you using in the 80s?

I had a couple of Strats, and a couple of hand made flying Vs, made by Emory Deyong, in Canada. They were really nice guitars, with humbucking pickups, but I’ve always had a problem playing Gibson style electrics cos the necks are to flexible and I’d always bend them out of tune, I grab them too hard, whereas Fenders, or anything with a Fender feel didn’t present that problem so I tended to lean that way. Also the attack on Fenders in more finger friendly, more like the acoustic.

– A kind of natural compression to the sound?

yeah, so it suited’ it easy to overplay an electric guitar when you’re used to an acoustic, whether it’s fingers or a pick. One of the most flagrant historic examples of that is Django Reinhard – when you listen to his records on electric guitar they sound horrible next to the genius tone, not to mention the content of his acoustic playing. He’s whacking the shit out of the electric and it hurts! And I did the same thing -everybody that switches, has to overcome that same tendency which was made easier on certain guitars than on others.

– After the darkness of Big Circumstance, you came back with a far more commercial album in Nothing But A Burning – a shift to new country?

The term new country got invented after we made that album, but the conscious effort made in those songs was definitely a shift. I’d had this big dry spell and at the end of the 80s, from the middle of 88 to the end of 89 I didn’t write anything,

– was that scary?

It was very scary, it was sort of like well OK, either I’ve got to think of some drastic thing to do or I’ve got to go and learn a new trade! So I decided to declare myself on sabbatical, I was gonna take 1990 off, which I did, and I just announced to the world that I was going to have no public involvement with anything, and I more or less did that. And within a week of having started on my sabbatical I started writing, and I wrote Child Of the Wind, and the songs started coming that ended up making up ‘Nothing But a Burning Light’.

But there’d been this big clearing of the slate before that, like the whole 80s was cancelled. The thing that I’d realised during that dry period was that I’d be looking around at songs and I noticed that I had no virtually no songs that someone who was an untrained guitar player could sit down and make work, and I thought that was kind of a lack, so I deliberately made an effort to write songs that you didn’t have to play like I do to make them sound good, you could just strum the chords and they’d still work. So Child of the Wind was like that, and most of the other song on NBABL fit that description. That was on purpose, that had the effect that it wasn’t an attempt to make the songs commercial, it was to make the accessible to someone that wanted to have fun playing them. And that kind of carried over into Dart to the Heart, and then I kinda dropped it – I got bored with that!

– Any label pressure?

No – well, record companies like radio air-play – but nothing that affected the content of the songs, or even really the way we recorded them. The choice of T-Bone Burnett to produce those records was a process that involved the record company, but we had a list of people and he was on everybody’s list. The sound of those records owes everything to T-Bone, and to the particular to the writing of the songs that set that up.

– Burning Light is an amazing sounding album

Nothing But A Burning Light came out really well. Dart To The Heart we didn’t get as lucky on, although there’s still a lot that I really like about that. But NBABL was one of those instances where everything falls together exactly right. It was such a great band on there – Keltner and Michael Been, Edgar Meyer and Booker T.

– Two albums with T-Bone on the major.

..and the Christmas album which was done sort of in between, which I produced though I owe a lot to T-Bone for that, for the inspiration of his attitude towards production more than any of the technical stuff. I guess it was the same as my process of learning from guitar players, I didn’t study what he did, but I picked up an understanding from him of how to focus on the essence of a song without screwing it up in the process of adding instruments to it. there are many many ways that you can mess with a song in the studio so there’s something very important about uncovering that essence and keeping it in the forefront.

– Was that a chance to re-indulge your love of folk music?

Well, in a way.. circumstantially I guess’ The Christmas album was something I’d wanted to do for 20 years because I’d loved that music and thought I could do something with it, but it took that long to get somebody to pay for it. We were doing these radio shows out of New York, we did 5 in the end, which became the Columbia Records Radio Hour, which became a monthly show that they did, I ended up doing all the Christmas ones.

– And you duetted with Lou Reed on Cry Of A Tiny Babe????

I know, it amazes me too – you should have been there when it happened. We’d rehearsed it but he was reading the lyrics off. There we were playing the song, and it came time for his verse and that’s what he did, and I just started laughing as you can probably hear on the ensuing chorus.

– New York was a favourite of yours?

Yeah that was a great album – I don’t really know the body of Lou’s work’ you know who else I really liked through that period was Laurie Anderson, or course they’re now a pair which is pretty interesting. She did some marvellous stuff. I don’t go to many shows, especially big shows, but I remember going to see her at Massey Hall in Toronto and it was maybe the best show I’ve ever seen, for sheer entertainment and content’

– now your on Rykodisc – it sounds like your back in a love affair with the guitar…

It’s what came out of the experiment – it starts with Dart, or maybe even Burning Light. It’s like I said, but the end of the 80s I’d finally learned what to do with an electric guitar, and you can start to hear that on the records, and it continues, I’m still learning all the time – the more I learn, the more I want to do with it, though the new album doesn’t feature that much electric, there’s a couple of prominent bits, but the Charity of Night features some extended leads and stuff. It’s the first time I’ve felt confident enough to allow myself to do the jazz part of the record – I’d always imported other people to do that, you get John Goldsmith on keyboards, or Hugh Marsh on violin adding the jazz into it, but as of the Charity of Night it was time for me to try and do some of it myself, though on the new album it’s not so much on the electric but the two instrumentals have a lot of improvising in them. I’m just letting myself play – we’ll see what happens when we put the band together to tour’

– And live? At Greenbelt the guitar playing was really front and centre…

That’s always been part of the live shows – Dialogue With The Devil, although I’m playing different thing in the solo part of it, it’s basically the same way I was doing it in 1974. To some extent those little lead things have always been in the shows, more so than on any of the records, and with the band shows there’s always been more electric guitar leads, until now when it seems to be evening out a bit. It’s fun to play, you know? It’s partly getting older and allowing myself more freedom. I’ve always had this built in limitation of things supposed to be a certain way, I’ve a limited concept of how things can be and how stretchy you can make things, and over the years that’s gotten a lot looser.

– The record sounds unfettered. Fun, passionate and full of energy.

There wasn’t much restraint – the restraints on me are my technical ability more than anything, and I suppose ones technical ability limits to some degree what you can imagine, at least in my case it does! It doesn’t stop at the same place, but you hear things projected from what you know how to do.

– your guitar now is a Linda Manzer, right?

I had a Larivee – I had the first cutaway guitar that Larivee ever made. Larivee was the first Canadian guitar maker to work with steel string guitars, and he developed a whole style of guitar making that owed nothing to Martin or Gibson, having a different concept of bracing, ‘n’ all that. And Linda along with a couple of other people was one of Larivee’s apprentices for a while – there were three of four of them who were spawns of the original Larivee thing, only Larivee has moved into more a shop thing, with helpers – not a factory as such, but more like that than it was. Linda continued to make guitars on her own.

I had two Larivee guitars, and a David Wren, who was another Larivee apprentice. I had two Wrens, one got destroyed in a fire, at a rehearsal space, which was right before one of the tours of Italy, so I had to play electric guitar – my telecaster was all I had left, and the Italians were really pissed at that, and were yelling out ‘acoustica, acoustica!!’ They didn’t want to hear me playing electric at all, and didn’t believe that my guitar had been burnt – they thought I was putting one over on them.

Anyway, I ended up moving from that to a Manzer. I’d experimented with a few commercial guitars that people were trying to get me to use, and I didn’t like any of them – that was in 86/87. The guitar that Linda made me then I had until the beginning of this year and I traded it back to her for a new one with slightly different characteristics. It was a particularly deep bodied guitar with a cedar top, slightly wider than average neck to make room for finger-picking. When I got it that’s what I wanted, but over the years as I started switching back and forth between electric and acoustic more often, I started wanting my acoustic strings to be closer together so it wasn’t such an adjustment moving back and forth. I found to that I developed a problem over the Charity of Night tour I started getting a problem with my right hand fingers, and what had happened is that because of the extra body depth – we’re only talking about a 1/2 inch but with a guitar that’s significant – the top corner of the guitar was pressing in the nerves in my forearm and over the 10 years that I’d played the guitar it had started to cause problems with the nerves in my arm. So I approached Linda about getting another one from her and she makes a kind of guitar that’s sort of wedge shaped – narrower on the bass side. You sacrifice some bottom end tone, acoustically, but no-one listens to guitars acoustically any more live anyway – very few people even know how to mic one anymore’ The wedge shaped one is not extra deep, mainly because survival is more important than the bass end! That’s what I used at Greenbelt – it’s slight, and not really noticeable to the casual observer, but it does have enough of a slope that it doesn’t put pressure on that particular spot. I knew this from playing the Dobro which has a very thin body and I wasn’t having any trouble playing that so duh! Make the connection, it’s obvious! But so ended up with the new Manzer, which I really love. As I said, it sacrifices a slight amount of bass tone acoustically, electrically, with the fishman pickup that’s in it, it sounds as good as any other guitar with a Fishman. Just the latest generation of piezo. It’s got a really nice neck – it’s a beautiful guitar to play.

– Mic and line in the studio?

Normally I would just mic it – we probably did some of it plugged in, but we never used it, it’s kind of more for safety – if we get a little noise on the mic, or we have to punch in…

But I don’t really like the sound of it plugged in when you don’t have to have it – it’s there live because there’s no other way, but the new Manzer is not what appears on the new album – that’s a Collings that I have that I’ve had for three years. It’s the one that like D28, big body. You hear that on the Charity of Night and on Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu, because the new Manzer was still too green – it hadn’t opened up yet’

– Electrics on the album?

On Blueberry Hill, it’s a black and cheesy Charvel Surfcaster, And a Strat that a friend gave me that she’d had lying around is doing a lot of the leads of the album.

– which artists have you seen recently that class as ‘ones to watch’?

Ani Defranco well enough known at this point that she’s not really one to watch unless you haven’t heard her yet in which case you’d better! But she’s to me the best thing happening now, in terms of acoustic style songwriters. And Kelly Joe Phelps is running right up there behind her. They’re both completely original really interesting players playing very different styles of music, but very distinctive in their approaches. For guitar players, Bill Frisell – he’s somebody that I would go out of my way to see live, and Marc Ribot – the Cubanos Postisos Record – that’s an incredible record. I saw him play in New York at one of those weird avant garde gigs and he was excellent – those are the kind of things that interest me. James Blood Ulmer is someone else that interests me greatly, and has done since the 80s.

– are you influenced by the avante garde?

I like stuff that’s out on the edge, I’ve always liked that. I’ve never seen myself as being there, but I’ve always wanted to be.

– Any plans to work with Jonatha Brooke again?

I’d love to, but there’s no plans to at the moment’ She’s a fantastic writer and singer and a great person. She’s someone who uses a lot of different tunings but really uses them interestingly and doesn’t just play the same thing from tuning to tuning. She’s got a great sense of sonority.

Tags: journalism

Critical, pragmatic, self-belief – an artist's life-blood…

February 27th, 2008 · 4 Comments

Had a lovely morning giving a lecture/masterclass at the ACM today. It was extra-fun because I was given a topic I hadn’t spoken on before, but was given it at too short notice to have time to prepare so I had to wing it. And it went great, at least from where I was stood (which as we’ll discover, is the best place to judge it from…)

I was asked to talk about putting together a set list, and preparing ‘programme notes’ or promotional material… we didn’t spend much time on the last bit, as I got really into the theme of the first bit.

The first thing I highlighted was the danger of mechanistic formulae for ‘how things work’ – in any creative pursuit, following the tried-and-tested paths to the letter is a recipe for mediocrity, for blending in, disappearing into the general morass of non-descript music. This doesn’t mean that learning about those formulae was a bad thing, just that there is no ‘if you do this, then you’ll be great’ about any creative pursuit. Everybody wants the ‘one piece of advice‘ that’s going to send you over the edge – as I mentioned in the Bull-Schmidt podcast I once heard a kid ask John Scofield what kind of things he’d play over a Dmin7 chord, obviously hoping for some magical one line key to unlock sounding like Sco… clearly, that’s bollocks. It doesn’t mean that you couldn’t find within Sco’s phrasiology some repeated ideas that are common to the way he plays over min7 chords, it just means that those aren’t what makes his playing connect… Using the 9th a lot isn’t a formula for sounding great, even if it is what a particular soloist does a lot…

So where do we start? Well we start with a guiding principle, but instead of it being one to lock things up and give us a tidy outcome, it’s wildly open ended, and ultimately a call to being mindful of every bit of music or performance you come into contact with… The principle is one of ultimately trusting your instinct, your gut, your own taste.

Why? Why trust your own taste? Primarily because it’s pretty much all you’ve got. There are so few people in the world who can successfully and repeatedly second-guess the taste of a particular music buying audience, that it’s fairly safe to assume that you’re not one of them. And, as Jeff Schmidt pointed out here, so much of it is completely random anway… So, your own taste – why go with it? Because unless you’re the kind of person who gets off on the sound of the fridge door opening and closing, the chances are there’s something pretty standard, broad and interesting about the music that excites you. It probably won’t be completely ‘mainstream’ (serious musicians with completely mainstream taste scare me) but will probably feature an appreciation of some stuff that your more snobbish listening-only friends would dismiss as ‘too pop’…

So you embrace your own taste, you reconise that there’s a reason why you like the things you do, there’s a way they make you feel, there’s a way that the music you choose to put on soundtracks your world (here comes the pay-off) – and you attempt to write and perform music that makes you feel the way that music makes you fee. That’s a very different thing from trying to sound like someone else. Soundalikes are generally compared unfavorably to their primary influence. You might convince some short-termist record company goon that you’re worth a punt because the band you’re ripping off are successful. You might even sell millions of records. But it’s phenomenally unlikely, and not really a good bet, given that your stake is ‘every waking hour’…

No, if you go with your taste, and aim to write and perform music that soundtracks your life in the way that the music you love does, you’ll be writing music you love, but music that tells your story. You’ll be combining the emotional imprint of the different things that inspire you, and building up a range of emotions and stories and feelings to soundtrack.

However (there’s always an however), what needs to happen then is to critique your own taste and filters. To critique your perception of what you do. Because as well as being most in touch with your own taste, you’re also the one most likely to be seduced by the idea of what you’re doing do the point where you mis-judge your own execution of that idea.

And that, dear bloglings, is a life long process of refinement. Of listening, playing, resting, listening, of being surprised and disappointed, restless, enthralled, of peaks and troughs and plateaus. And advice.

The advice bit is a real headache. Why? Because everyone will want to give you their opinion on what you do and most of them will be a waste of oxygen. Again you ask, why? Because precious few people will take the time to try and understand what you’re trying to do, to offer advice that helps you reach for your goals. So few people realise that their taste has pretty much nothing to do with whether what you do is ‘right’ or ‘good enough’ or whatever.

It’s why posting your music on a web forum and asking ‘what do you think?’ can be a very effective promotional method, but is worse than useless as part of the critical process. It just provides taste-based opinions entirely without context and as we’ve said many times before context is everything. It’s quite possible for people to say that great music is great for all the wrong reasons. It’s possible for positive feedback to be deeply unhelpful.

The interwebs are full of people who will tell you why they don’t like what you do, what you’re doing wrong, why your songs are too fast/slow/ repetitive/poppy/ rocky/obscure/ bassy/trebly/ spikey/dull/complex… the list is endless, and the ascii-rendered brain-vomit that they produce is pointless.

What you should really be trying to build is a council of referencea group of people who have demonstrated beyond doubt that they get what you’re trying to do, who are sympathetic to your approach, desires, inspiration and goals, and who want to help. A few groups of people are immediately disqualified –

  • anyone with a dispensation towards jealousy when they hear other great music, *anyone who’s on your pay-roll (if they feel their job is at risk if they piss you off, no-one’s going to tell you you need to work harder),
  • people who are always telling you how other people should be doing their thing.

Finding those people who have a desire to help, to support encourage and to push you to be the best you can be is a rare rare treasure. Hold onto them. And perhaps even more importantly – both in terms of the learning exercise and the karmic fall-out – BE THAT PERSON TO THOSE WHOSE MUSIC YOU HOLD DEAR.

What does all this have to do with putting a set list together? Everything. Getting, as our ‘merkin friends say, your ‘ducks in a row’ is vital before starting to decide things like this. Guiding principles are vital because our thoughts need guiding.

When you’re thinking about what the first song in your set should be, there are loads of things to consider. Firstly, who your audience is – do they know who you are? Do you have a reputation to them that is bigger in their minds than their actual knowledge of what you do? Are they already onside? Is it a genre-specific event? From those and other related questions, you can deduce an approach, based on whether you want to confirm or confound those expectations. Do you want to ease in gently, or lay your cards on the table?

Gigging to a new or new-ish audience is the art of seduction, you’re trying to draw people in, get them interested, get them feeling positive about what you do, and expectant for what’s coming next. You can lay out a manifesto in your first song, or just put them at ease. You can be confrontational in a ‘this is us, screw you if you don’t get it’ kind of way, or your can say ‘come on in, the water’s lovely’ and invite people to join you in your soundtracked smiley world.

And from thence the journey continues – how long is the set? do you have a long time to do the slow build, or do you only have four songs to wow them? is there a ballad or two that you want to fit in. Where do you fit the freaky song in? do you want to throw in a curve ball, and do a song just bass, spoons and four part harmonies, even though you’re a screamo band?

It can all work, there are no hard and fast rules, and for every formula there’s a breath-takingly great band that have printed out said formula and wiped their arses with it.

Do what works, but constantly critique what it is that you think works. The key to keeping a balance (and well done if you’ve read this far!) is a principle I apply to just about everything, that of ‘pragmatic self-assurance’ – I assume I’m right and operate as though I am, whilst being constantly open to the possibility that I’m wrong. Any criticism that has context, that is shared by someone who wants you to grow not fail, who has proven they understand your goals and wants to help you towards them, is to be cherished and heeded. Reviews in fanzines and critiques from muppets on web-forums and email-lists, who write to belittle what you do for whatever odd pointless reasons are to be avoided. Don’t even read them. Go elsewhere for the critique you need, to a deeper place.

And never stop learning. (this’ll be my last point in this hugely overly-long blog post) – for any music student, it’s catastrophic for you to study music with the idea that there is some kind of difference between what you’re trying to do and what your teachers or other pro musicians should be doing. We’re all trying to play the best music we can, and to communicate it as best we can to an audience. Passing exams is neither here nor there. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s also no indicator of whether you’re going to be ‘successful’ at what you do. It can provide a useful framework for learning, I’m not suggesting that formalised education is a bad thing, but it has to be about you as a musician growing, learning and more fully realising who you already are. I didn’t stop studying when I left college, and I didn’t start being a creative musician when I ‘turned pro’ – whatever that means. All that changed was how the bills got paid. On an epistemological level, I’m doing the same thing now as I did when I first picked up a bass and started whacking the strings with a thumb pick. I’m trying to develop the control and awareness I need to make music that soundtracks the world around me.

It’s simple in concept, and lifelong in execution. Enjoy the journey.

Tags: journalism · Rant - Politics, Spirituality, etc. · tips for musicians

Lee Sklar interview from Bassist Mag, Oct 99

February 3rd, 2008 · 2 Comments

One of my favourite things about going out to NAMM each January is getting to see Lee Sklar – if you’re a bass player you obviously already know who he is. If you’re not a bassist, you might recognise Lee as the guy that played bass with James Taylor and Phil Collins who looks like the Farside version of God.

He’s a bona fide bass legend, has defined how the rest of us approach playing with singer/songwriters, but has covered so many other styles, including playing on Billy Cobham’s classic fusion record, Spectrum.

Interviewing Lee back in 99 was a real pleasure, and an honour, and since then we’ve become friends, and always catch up for a chat a NAMM. He’s on tour with Toto at the moment – if you go and see them play and get to say hi after the show, please pass on my best!

here’s the interview – enjoy!

—o0o—

Lee Sklar Interview

(Reproduced from the October 1999 issue of Bassist Magazine)

Few faces are as instantly recognisable within the bass world as Lee Sklar. The same is definitely true of his playing. With more than 30 years and 2000 albums behind him, Lee’s sound has graced more hit records than almost anyone.

Aside from being a hired gun, Lee is best known for his long standing musical relationships with Phil Collins and James Taylor. Indeed, it was the gig with James that proved to be Lee’s ticket into music full time back in the late 60s.

“I was in a lot of local bands in LA, including a band called Wulfgang,” recalls Lee. “James auditioned as the singer but wasn’t what we were looking for – we needed someone somewhere between Sam ‘n’ Dave and Robert Plant! James blew me away but just wasn’t right.

“About a year later, James asked me to do a gig, which I immediately agreed to. We did two gigs at one venue – the first was before ‘Fire and Rain’ and the place was so empty you could drive a truck through it. At the second show, the place was packed, and we knew we were onto something! So a gig which initially looked like being one or two shows ended up being 20 years.”

So was it working with James that opened the door to session work?

“Yeah. It’s funny, I’ve always considered myself a band guy. I was an art student in college and I still think I’m a better sculpture than musician. Music was just a weekend hobby – I had no intention of becoming a studio musician. I was really shocked when I started getting calls to play on people’s records.”

Unlike many bassists, it’s impossible to label the one kind of music that you get called for – your CV is so diverse. How did that come about?

“I don’t really know – I feel really fortunate to have just got the calls! I guess that once I came to the realisation that I was a studio musician, I discovered that the most essential aspect is having really wide ears, embracing all styles.”

Has that always been your approach?

“Not at all! I started playing classical piano at four years old and was still a complete classical music snob when I started studying upright bass – all orchestral stuff. I wasn’t into Elvis or the Beach Boys – I was into Gershwin and Copeland. It was a different world. Then the first time I heard the Beatles’I was an usher at the Hollywood Bowl the first time they played there – Paul changed my life! (laughs)

“When I got into the studio scene, I found myself getting all kinds of calls. One minute I’m doing Helen Reddy’s ‘I Am Woman’, and the next thing I know I’m doing ‘Spectrum’ with Billy Cobham. The calls would come in and I’d just look at everything as a challenge.

Have you ever turned down a session?

“Occasionally – I’ve had a huge amount of wrist injuries, so I can’t play thumb-popping (slap) style – I don’t have the dexterity to deal with it. So when people call me to do that, I put them in touch with friends I have – I’d rather see other guys working, and I’ll just come hang out.

“I also don’t play upright anymore. I was doing a project where I was using a Washburn 5 string fretless to get an upright sound, but they had a couple of songs where they wanted real upright and I said ‘call Patitucci’ – it was when he was still living in LA – and I went down and hung out at the sessions with John.

“I’ve always tried to understand my limitations so I try to find out ahead of time what they want on the session. The one main thing I’ve cultivated is a real sensitivity to singer/songwriters. I know how to accompany, and how to listen to a person breathe to hear where the down beat is – to never try to lead them. I’m really comfortable on that seat – I’ve never considered myself a virtuoso. It’s like going to the NAMM show and listening to all the guys with the monstrous chops – I’ve never considered myself that. I’m happy when people say I’m ‘king of the whole note’ – I really value that position as a bass player. I’ve done fusion, but I like being an accompanist.”

From a listener’s point of view, it sounds like you spot the holes, and never play across the vocal?

“I think it just requires listening and one of the problems that a lot of players have is that they don’t listen. Don’t get me wrong, I admire the tenacity that it takes to develop NAMM show chops – you see all these guys that have these different gifts and it’s fantastic. But I’m just one of these people that if I’m doing a recording and they ask for a bass solo I say I’d rather hear another song in that space, and I’ve heard some of the greatest soloists in the world play. I can enjoy it for a bit but I’m really a song person – maybe an element of it is laziness on my part. I grew up in an era where you were hired as an accompanist, even if you were doing a metal project. I really believe in the song.”

I assume that that sets producers at ease?

“Not only the producer, but I often get hired because the artist feels like they’re going to be comfortable with the extra room to breath. Guys get so used to ‘time’ that they don’t really understand that you can have a beautiful pause before a verse, because you’re human! Don’t do all your training with a metronome, try to understand what it is to really feel a song. Don’t be afraid to leave that kind of space. That’s what I’ve always liked about Asian thinking, the importance of space, allowing things not to be there.

“I did a clinic at the Bass Centre in LA a few years ago, and it scared the crap out of me. I only agreed to it as a non-playing clinic – most of the guys there were sleeping with their basses and waking up and playing them – that’s what I was like at that age, too. Anyway, they got to talking about how boring it must be to play country cos there’s not much going on. And I said a whole note is much more difficult to do than 32nd notes, which only demands proficiency. If someone gives you one note to do in a bar, there’s a whole lot more responsibility – where do you drop that note? Do you put a little vibrato on it? Which string do you play it on for tonal quality? When do you lift off? Do you mute it with your hand? They were all looking at me saying ‘geez we just thought it was boring!’

After so many tours and albums, do you still have any unfulfilled ambitions?

“I would like to get back and start sculpting again. I haven’t done it for a long time now, just because the music has occupied such a large part of my life. I’m going to be 52 years old this year, and you’d think at this point in my life that maybe things will start to slow down but I’m still as busy as ever! I’ve been working with artists from Mexico, Japan, Thailand and France; I’m musical director on a TV show, I’ve got sessions coming up with Barbra Streisand. It’s amazing to me that I’m still getting all these calls. My ambition is just to keep doing what I do. I just really enjoy getting up and going to work and playing with guys that I like playing with. That and enjoying my home life – my family, my pets, my garden, building cars. I feel like a big pie, and music is a slice of the pie but not the whole pie. It impacts everything else I do, but I don’t have to be playing every day to feel I’m a valuable person.”

In Defense Of REAL Musicians!

After 30 years in the industry, having seen recording technology blossom from the days when a four track was state of the art to what we have now – how has that changed it for players like yourself?

“Firstly, I’m all in favour of technology – I don’t want to be living in the stone age – but one of the biggest problems with technology is that it’s become so good that it’s allowed people into this business that should never have been in it. With Pro-Tools and such like, you’ve got singers that can’t sing to save their lives and engineers whose whole careers are spent tuning bad singers. You’ve got a drummer with no time, so you move the beat. As far as I’m concerned if the guy doesn’t swing, fire him – let him serve french fries in McDonald’s, but don’t let him get in a studio, because there are too many great players trying to get into that seat. That aspect of technology I find really disconcerting.

“Every once in a while I work on things and I feel like I’m in the old days. We got so used to that – going into sessions with Jim Gordon, or Jim Keltner and the pocket was so strong! Everything was based on ensemble playing, whereas nowadays, at least half the work I do, I’m just overdubbing to sequenced bass and they want it to feel natural, but you’re already handcuffed by the fact that this was done to a sequencer and they want you to make it breath a little bit and I think: why don’t they just put a rhythm section together and do this???? People are afraid – they want to keep as much control and money as they can, and are afraid to let a bunch of guys come in and actually play something. I’ve worked with people and we’ve had to make their records that way and suddenly we’ll do a gig and the first time the band plays the song it’s a hundred times better than the record and they’re wondering why! It’s because we’re all putting personality into the tunes.”

Lee’s gear

Working in such diverse situations requires quite a few different tools – here’s a list of the current Sklar arsenal [current as of Oct 99!] –

1. A Fender(ish) 4 string bass – “It has Charvel alder body, two EMG P-Bass pickups in Jazz position, but reversed, a Badass Bridge, a Hipshot D-Tuner, and mandolin fretwork.”
2 Dingwall 5-string “bitchin’!”
3 Yamaha TRB5 fretless
4 Washburn AB45(s?) acoustic fretless
5 Tubeworks DI
6 Euphonic Audio 2×8″ and 2×10″ speaker cabs.
7 Walter Woods amp
8 GK 1200 combo amp
9 Boss Octave pedal (‘my rack consists of this one pedal!’)
10 GHS Super Steel Strings 40-102.

That’s a fair amount of gear, but as the man says – “It’s still the same old me at the helm so what the hell!?”

Tags: journalism

Steve Rodby interview from Bassist Mag, Aug 1999

November 5th, 2007 · 1 Comment

Steve Rodby was, without a doubt, one of the nicest people I got to meet when writing for Bassist mag. Along with Michael Manring, Lee Sklar, Jimmy Haslip and a handful of others, he was one of the interviewees that inspired me as much by his personality, grace and enthusiasm as by his wise words and exceptional playing. His thoughts on soloing in this interview were particularly enlightening…

He’s also, bizarrely, one of the most underrated bassists on the planet. I’ve had the ‘who could replace Steve Rodby?’ conversations with loads of great bassists the world over, and no-one has yet suggested another player that does everything that Steve does as well as Steve does it in the Pat Metheny Group. His jazz upright playing is exemplary, his bowing beautiful, his rock and pop electric playing makes him sound like he’s spent the last 40 years studying nothing but great rock/pop bass playing. He’s a proper low-frequency master of all trades. So here’s the interview – again, frustratingly, it’s an edit of a very long and involved conversation that I wish I had transcribed… maybe I’ll have to start an ‘in conversation’ podcast – could be a fun project for NAMM… Anyway, have a read of this, then go and listen to any of the PMG albums that Steve plays on, and be amazed at what a great player he is. One thing to keep in mind is that when Richard Bona joined the PMG, he joined as a singer. That’s how good Steve is :o)


For 20 Years now The Pat Metheny Group has been one of the biggest selling acts on the contemporary jazz scene. It has consistently filled concert halls and arenas the world over, and produced a series of critically acclaimed albums that have touched on almost every imaginable area of contemporary music, from Latin to industrial, drum ‘n’ bass to avante garde and freeform improv.

Since 1982 Steve Rodby’s upright and electric bass grooves have driven the band’s sound, helping to define the style that is now instantly recognisable as the PMG.

Bassist collared Steve for the low down on all things Metheny-esque while they were in London earlier this year for three nights at the Shepherds Bush Empire.

SL – You started out as a Classical bassist, but made the switch to Jazz fairly early on. How did that come about?

‘I always thought I’d be a classical bassist. My father is a classical musician, so that seemed the obvious direction. I went to college to study, but I don’t think I was ever quite at the level where I would have landed a really good orchestral post.

‘Very early on I started playing pop. When I was in college I got a couple of calls for studio work and I took to those sessions extremely well. Because orchestra playing was kinda boring, I played this game with my self when I was a kid where I would imagine that there was a mic in front of my bass recording every note that I played and that someone was going to say “Rodby, come in here!” and then play the tape back and say “What were you doing there”'”

‘So when I finally got in the studio, it was a fairly stress free process as I’d been playing for imaginary tape recorders for years!!

‘I also started to play electric bass, and made the switch to playing pop easily as that’s the music I was listening to all the time.

‘I finished college got my degree in classical bass, but by half way through college I was playing fairly regularly on the Chicago jazz scene.

‘My big break came when the great bass player Rufus Reid, who played in the house band at the Jazz Showcase (prestigious Chicago jazz venue), moved to New York, so the gig was up for grabs. The owner of the club seemed to like the way I played, and I ended up playing five nights, three sets a night with all these amazing visiting musicians like Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt and Joe Henderson. The drummer in the house band had played with Charlie Parker and the pianists were all 30 years older than me and knew so much about music. And here I was this nerdy college kid with a classical background and all I had going for me was my ear and a feel!’

How did you learn all the tunes?

‘When I first started playing bass, my dad bought would play guitar and we would play duets. To teach me a song, he would write the roots notes and bar lines down, with no information about what else to play, so I had to improvise from the very beginning.

‘On the gigs, I was doing the same thing – following roots and knowing instinctively what the rest of the notes were. The piano players would play the first few choruses very clearly until I had it. I learned on the bandstand rather than in the practice room or out of books. I never really studied as much as I wish that I had.’

How did you first hook up with Pat?

‘I’d met Pat at various jazz camps when we were younger, and had stayed in touch. He was looking to add acoustic bass to his band and was auditioning players. My name came up so he called me and I went to NY and auditioned. Shortly after that he offered me the job.

‘When I met Pat I was an unformed nobody from small town Illinois, who didn’t even know what chords were, and he was already the future of music – he was 18 and had it all figured out. He was so far ahead of the game it was unbelievable. But when we played there was something about the style of the music that I felt that I could understand that I couldn’t account for – It may have been similar backgrounds and a shared love of pop music, the Beatles. It just made sense. I used to listen to the first couple of PMG albums and say to myself – ‘that’s my music’. It really was my dream group.’

Was it intimidating to work with Pat after the succession of great bassists that he’d already worked with?

‘Mmm, not really. The only thing that could have freaked me was Pat’s relationship with Jaco. Not only because he played with Jaco, but he REALLY played with Jaco. Bright Sized Life was one of the best records ever made. The next time I saw Pat after he met Jaco he said, “Oh man, I just heard a bass player that is going to change music. He sounds like John McLaughlin and John Coltrane only better – and on bass!!” – Pat doesn’t say stuff like that lightly!

‘Once I heard Jaco I just said “forget it, I’m not even going to try!” I was one of the few bassists on the planet who loved Pat and Weather Report but didn’t get a fretless and transcribe Jaco’s licks. I’ve never transcribed a bass solo in my life! Hearing Jaco also kept me away from playing fretless. So I thought if I’m going to do anything, I’ll play acoustic bass and I’ll play fretted pop style bass. Playing acoustic bass with Pat gave me a lot of freedom because what I was doing was different to what Mark Egan, Jaco or Charlie Haden had done. That’s my way of being able to sleep at night, otherwise I would have shot myself a long time ago!!’

How did the group develop such a distinctive sound?

‘In the early days of the band, I think we had a feeling that we had to do something different from other bands, so we had a load of do’s and don’ts – don’t do fusion, don’t have a back beat. And then we spent a lot of time avoiding music that may have sounded borrowed. But now we’ve finally got to the place were we can play Happy Birthday and it’ll sound like us. So we can now do a tune like the opening track on Imaginary Day that sounds sorta Chinese, maybe a bit like Gamalan Indonesian music, but it still sounds like us.’

Live, on the standard, ‘How Insensitive’, you take the first solo that I’ve heard you play. Is this a new area for you?

‘For years I took some really bad solos, and then we started doing this tune and I began applying myself to soloing again. That’s the next thing to think about. Not just soloing, but maybe making a solo record. I’ve spent so many years not paying any attention to it, but now that I’ve finally started to do my homework, I’ve found a real satisfaction. I’ve managed to get beyond the plateau that I was on. I’m moving forward as a soloist, so maybe now’s the time to do my own record.’

What have you been studying?

‘Well, I’ve finally begun to realise that at the technical level – playing melodies and chord scales, playing faster, higher – that you need to be able to do it 20 times faster than you’ll ever need to in a song! My problem was that the fastest the highest the hardest that I ever played was in this little solo during the gig. I was always trying to reach so far over my head and it didn’t really work.

‘So I realised that I had to put in the time, getting my technique up to speed. Same with the chord scales – there is a set of musical materials that you need to know – with this chord, this set of notes are your primary musical material – you can do other things, but you need that reference point.

‘These are the things that beginning sax or piano players learn very easily, but bass players don’t seem to take to so well. Fancy bass soloists tend to learn a bunch of hot licks but often don’t learn the fundamentals of music. So I’m finally taking the time to learn what the chords are and be able to play them at soloing speed!

‘A great bass solo has to be a high quality melody that would sound like a high quality melody if it was played on another instrument. You’d go, “well, it’s down kinda low on the piano, and he’s playing a little slow, but that’s a great melody!” Most bass solos on any other instrument would sound kinda weak.

‘I have a million miles to go, but that’s what I aspire to, that’s what I’m going to work on for the next 20 years. I’m sat up there playing for myself and for the audience but I’ve also got Pat and Lyle, two of the finest melodic improvisers around, sat right behind me! I’m not going to get a smile out of them by playing fast, but my playing good strong melodies.”

Pat Metheny on Steve Rodby:

When you’ve played with the most highly respected bassists on the planet, the must be something pretty special about the guys that you keep in your band for 15 years. Here’s what Pat has to say about Steve –

‘The kinds of things I need in any musician who is going to be in the group, regardless of their role in the band, is a certain musical insight that includes, but hopefully transcends, a deep sense of what has happened on their respective instrument, particularly over the past 60 or 70 years of popular and improvised music, combined with the musical skill and vocabulary to sonically render their conception of what just what that history implies into a personal sound. Steve Rodby has the ability to do just that and so much more, and that is what makes him the perfect bass player for this band. His background in classical music combined with his extensive jazz playing and studio work has made him an exceptionally well rounded player with a genuine musical curiosity that transcends style. His relentless pursuit of just the right part, played with just the right intonation and sound are well suited for the basic musical aesthetic that our band aspires toward.’

Tags: bass ideas · journalism · tips for musicians

Doug Pinnick interview from March 1999

October 16th, 2007 · Comments Off on Doug Pinnick interview from March 1999

I’ve just been listening to King’s X, which reminded me I’ve yet to re-post my interview with Doug Pinnick. Doug has been one of my biggest bass heroes since I first heard Out Of The Silent Planet back in the late 80s – I was and still am a massive King’s X fan, so interviewing him was a bit of a dream come true. And it was made all the more enjoyable and memorable by the kind of conversation we had – he’d just come out as gay, which had massively upset the conservative end of their christian fanbase in the US, but on the upside had inspired an amazing album in Dogman… So we talked about all kinds of stuff – american culture, theology, bigotry, etc. etc. for hours. And with about half an hour to go i remembered that i was supposed to be getting a load of information for bass geeks, and that’s what this bit is! I’ve probably got the tape somewhere with the rest of it on, and maybe one day I’ll get round to typing it up, will run it by Doug and put it up somewhere if he’s OK with it… But for now, here’s the bassy bit of the interview, which is still pretty interesting! :o)


At the tail end of the 80s, the rock world underwent a bit of a shake up, as a handful of groups arrived on the scene, combining hard rocking guitars with such disparate elements as soulful vocal harmonies, funky bass lines and a sharp line in observational lyrics that were a far cry from the sword ‘n’ sorcery stuff that most of the HM fraternity were prone to churning out.

Bands such as Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Living Colour, Faith No More and, of course, Kings X, took over the pages of both the metal mags and the ‘serious’ music weeklies, hailed as the saviours of hard rock, and, for the most part, made a sizeable dent in the charts.

However, despite combining crushingly heavy guitar riffs with radio-friendly three-part harmony vocals, and enjoying some very favourable reviews, Kings X have so far managed to skirt round the edge of the mainstream without yet finding that elusive crossover hit.

Now, with a new King’s X album, ‘Tape Head’, in the shops and ‘Massive Grooves” by Doug’s solo project, Poundhound available, Kings X are finally coming back to the UK.

‘I always wanted to play bass, for as long as I can remember,’ begins Doug. ‘Eventually, I got lucky – a friend of mine gave me a bass. I grew up in the ghetto, and we were pretty poor. I never even thought I’d be able to play but this friend of mine loaned it to me and I wouldn’t give it back to him! I started playing and I was so happy! I mean, just one note made me ecstatic, and from that day on I’ve just played and I love it! I don’t remember learning how or really working at it because, even though I did, it was so much fun. Every new lick, every new note, was like “yeah!”‘

Thus begins the tale. But what kind of things were you playing along to back then?

‘It was the early 70s when I started playing bass, so I jammed along with records by Led Zeppelin, Sly And The Family Stone, Deep Purple, Yes, Kansas – that kind of stuff. I was a music-aholic! Anything I bought I would put on and play along and try to learn the licks. I did that for about two years and then started playing in bands. After that I never tried to copy anybody else – I was too busy having fun, writing music and stuff.’

What were those first bands like?

‘They were all pretty much garage bands. I wanted to just play bass but ended up singing in all of them. I thought each band was going to make it, but they all sucked! It was a good learning experience!’

How did you make the jump from garage band to Kings X?

‘I moved to Springfield, Missouri, to look for work and I met Jerry (Gaskill: KX drummer), and Ty (Tabor: KX guitarist). We formed a four piece with another guitarist for a couple of years, but it soon became evident that we were meant to be a trio!

‘After that, we played cover tunes for about five years, and then moved to Texas. We had dealings with a couple of small Christian labels before signing to MegaForce/Atlantic and releasing the first Kings X album. Since then we’ve been making records, doing gigs and going through everything everybody else goes through.’

That is, if “everything everybody else goes through” is releasing seven critically acclaimed albums, and doing regular arena tours both as headline act and as support act to some of the biggest names in rock!

There was a big change in the Kings X sound with 1994’s “Dogman” album. What happened?

‘Sam Taylor, who produced our first four albums, had a big influence on our sound, but he never managed to capture on record how heavy we are live. When he left us after “Kings X”, we got Brendan O’Brien in to do “Dogman”. He’s one of my favourite producers. He gets a really dry mix, and that’s what I wanted to go for. There’s one song on “Dogman” called Black The Sky, that is now my standard to mix to. That’s the sound on the Poundhound album – big and fat – more like our live sound’huge!’

Anyone doubting just how huge the Kings X live sound is should take a quick look at Doug’s live rig. Any queries will soon be laid to rest:

‘I use 6 Ampeg SVT 8×10 cabinets and I’ve got two double stereo Ampeg power amps – you can hook eight speakers up to each amp. They’re split in half with two electrical plugs on each amp, to cope with the power! I use an SVT pre-amp for my low end and a Fender Dual Showman for the high end, then run them both into a little mixer, through an EQ and into the power amps. Then I turn it up!!

‘People ask why I use so many cabs. It’s mainly because I like to get 40Hz and lower, to get that church organ kind of sound, so that when I hit a low note there’s that rumble that just shakes the building!’

You’ve been long associated with Hamer basses, and particularly with their 12-strings. I guess you were a Cheap Trick fan?

‘Yes, Cheap Trick was one of my favourite bands, and Tom Pederson is still one of my favourite bassists. We opened for them when “Out Of The Silent Planet” came out, and he let me play one of his 12-strings. Even though it was right-handed, it felt and sounded amazing, and he said, ‘just call Hamer up and get one.’

‘Hamer wanted to work with (King’s X guitarist) Ty’ and I said ‘What about me?!’. They replied, ‘We’ll make you some basses too, Doug!’, so I started using the 12-strings. The company started getting calls from people saying they’d see us play and were interested in them, so Hamer were quite happy to keep the thing going.

‘Ever since then, I’ve been using Hamers. They’ve made me about 12 basses, all of which have been custom-built for me. I have really long hands so I go for wide but shallow necks. I also have Seymour Duncan pickups with a power booster inside, so anything I plug into distorts. It’s my sound. The bass, the amp, the strings – which are DRs – and my hands’that’s my sound.’

Recently though, you’ve reverted to four stings’

‘On the last two Kings X albums, and even the Poundhound album, I’ve used predominantly a four-string. The 12-string is a weird animal to play, it didn’t quite fit with some of the Kings X stuff. Ty felt that it weakened the sound of his guitar, and I finally got tired of the power struggle and gave in for the sake of the overall sound. If I write a song on the 12-string then I can work the rest of the sound around it. Like Jeff Ament did on Jeremy with Pearl Jam – the 12-string carries the whole song. Human Behaviour on “Dogman” and Faith Hope Love were both written and recorded on the 12-string. I can actually play the whole of Faith Hope Love with the harmonics and arpeggios and everything on the 12-string, I don’t even need the guitar!!’

Kings X have always been known as a musicians’ band, and have been more influential than your record sales might suggest. Is that frustrating?

‘Not really. It’s great to be recognised by other musicians and we’ll always go down as the musicians’ band. It’s amazing how our name comes up in the strangest places. All across the board – jazz musicians, pop musicians and everything. But we’ve still never sold that many records. I think that was down to bad promotion. When ‘Dogman’ was released, New York radio stations were playing the title track all the time and we sold more records there than anywhere, but there still wasn’t a major single release of any of the tracks.

‘Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam was quoted on MTV as saying that as far as he’s concerned, King’s X invented grunge! When “Out Of The Silent Planet” came out, no-one else seemed to be doing D-tuned riffing like that. Then we went away for 18 months touring, got home and everyone was D-tuning, which was weird. We’re just one of those quirky weird bands, like Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Faith No More that were around in the late 80s, so I feel we were inspirational somewhere along the line.

‘As far as influencing bassists is concerned, I think my tone is what I’m known for, which is fine by me. Chris Squire from Yes is my hero, and he had such a great tone. Roundabout and America were two of the first tunes I ever really sat down to work out all the way through.

‘I’m not really impressed by fast players any more. I don’t cut them down, because that takes a lot of work. I admire someone like Yngwie Malmsteen who can sit and play like that, but I’ve stopped writing to be clever, the gigs were ending up too much like hard work!’

With Kings X signed to a new label and things looking rosy for the band, why choose now to start a solo project?

‘I’ve written about 100 songs in the last two years, and when I write for Kings X there are usually a few songs that don’t work in that format, so as an outlet I decided to do my own record. The album is out on Metal Blade, with me playing bass and guitar and do all the vocals with a few different drummers. It’s the dark side of King’s X.

‘Most of the material is real heavy but melodic as well. I’ve gone for something between Sly Stone and Hendrix, using the C-tuned/B-tuned Kings X style riffs, but with a kind of Neil Young approach too, sometimes. I’m making it real rootsy. I’ve got all the guitars tuned down to C, so it’s real low but with my usual Gospel-y vocals. It’s completely me, this is my record. I’m a control freak and this is my way of doing everything.’

Tags: journalism

John Patitucci interview from Jan. '99

October 6th, 2007 · Comments Off on John Patitucci interview from Jan. '99

In my time at Bassist, I interviewed John Patitucci twice – once was the one below, backstage at the Barbican, and once was for a jazz tutorial piece, downstairs at Pizza Express on Dean Street. He was a player that was talked of in such revered tones when I was at college – the pinnacle of wikkid bass skillz, and, I think, the first person I ever noticed playing a 6 string bass (when he was interviewed in Guitarist mag in the late 80s) – The bass line and solo on ‘Got A Match?’ from the first Electrik Band album was pretty much the gold standard. He was a nice guy to interview, friendly and full of great answers, and clearly someone who thinks in a very deep way about his playing. This interview followed his second really great record – ‘Now’. The first, ‘One More Angel’ is one of the finest acoustic jazz records of the last 35 years, IMHO, and came after years of impressive but relatively hollow electric fusion records.


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