November 20th, 2008 · Comments Off on Best Practices In Social Media.
Weeks and weeks ago, I was ‘tagged’ by the very lovely and talented Ben Ellis of RedCatCo, in a blog-meme about best practices in social media. It’s a great subject, because with social media stuff being as young as it is, we’re not as clued up on how to ‘use’ it as we are with say, a phone. No-one talks about ‘using the phone‘ as a business strategy, and people who misuse the phone (prerecorded spam calls) are generally vilified for being a total pain in the arse. The same could largely be said of email.
But social media has a different engagement curve than phone or email – the one-to-many nature of the conversations lends itself rather too well to getting the balance wrong.
So my suggestion for best practice surrounds the idea of parity. Parity in terms of messages out to messages in, followers to followees and the nature of the information you throw out there. So much of the strategising people do with social media (be it facebook, twitter, myspace, linkedin, or whatever else) still treats these platforms as a broadcast medium. I can’t stress strongly enough, social media is crap for broadcast. If you want to carpet-bomb web-users with info about your product, just buy some dodgy email spam software, and stop misusing twitter as an ad medium. It’s not designed for it, it doesn’t facilitate it, and the rubbish lengths you have to go to to try and shoe-horn your strategy into the platform make you look like a berk.
So, if you’re lost in the midde of it all, try to keep a degree of parity in terms of the numbers of people who follow you and you are following. Moreover, with Twitter, don’t follow more people than the number of tweets you’ve sent – it’s not a hard and fast rule, more a best practice for easing your way in. The excitement of joining in with the fun on twitter often leads to people ‘following’ tonnes of people before actually posting anything, but it just makes you look like a spammer. So slow down, use the ‘reply’ button liberally, don’t feel the desperate need to tweet the link to your site every third tweet. Just have fun, and talk to people.
If you see it as a conversation, and talk the way you’d want to be talked to. If you get annoyed with people who do nothing but talk about their business, don’t become that person.
So beginners best practice?
seek a degree of parity,
listen as much as you speak,
follow as much as you’re followed,
give as much information as you take,
offer more free advice than the amount of service-related tweets you do for your own product.
Bottom line – friends are more likely to be into what you do than strangers. So make friends first, and let the other stuffs take care of itself for now.
OK, let’s jump straight into part 2 with a few of the fears musicians have when making ourselves available to talk directly with our audience.
We’ll look at 3 areas we often get wrong when interacting with our audience, which are:
How to treat your audience like friends rather than your ‘target market’. (notice I keep using the more neutral term ‘audience’ rather than ‘fans’ – I’ve never been all that comfortable with the word ‘fans’, seems a little patronising in some contexts, but substitute it if you wish…).
allowing people to comment on what you do doesn’t mean you have to put up with insults and slander.
don’t confuse inviting comment with asking for advice.
These three are biggies in terms of HOW we actually treat our audience.
If You Treat Them Like Friends, They’ll Stick Around Longer. I was going through some old letters earlier today (we’re moving house) and found one from a guy I knew when I was a kid. It was the first letter I’d got from him in almost 2 years, and he was trying to sell me insurance! No introductory message, no catch-up, no context. Just ‘I’ve got a new job selling insurance; want some?’ It all came flooding back to me how used I felt when I got the letter, how insane it seemed, even back in those pre-spam days.The parallels with talking to your audience like friends are obvious. If all you ever say is ‘buy my shit!’, there’s no level of which it’s a friendship. Think about it in terms of ‘how would you feel if everyone you talk to on social media started behaving like you back at you?’ – if you’d be getting hundreds of adverts a day, it’s time to change your approach
Allowing People To Comment On What You Do Doesn’t Mean You Have To Put Up With Insults And Slander – this is probably a bigger issue for Americans than Brits, given that you guys have a much stronger attachment to the notion of ‘freedom of speech’.I was chatting with Ben Walker last night over curry, about all the things that happened around the viral explosion of his Twitter Song video. One of the things that he got that seems to be endemic on Youtube was the hateful, nasty comments. Hundreds of them. From people who hadn’t even watched the video, but just spend their time posting hateful comments for absolutely no reason. Fortunately Ben found it funny. His girlfriend, less so. I never allow insulting comments to stay on any site that I moderate. Disagreement is fine, but politeness is a must.My rule is, if someone said it to me in a pub, would I walk out? I’ve stopped posting on a couple of bass-related forums because I was being insulted by a handful of posters. It’s not that I get upset by it, but it does become a waste of my time. I’m not one to court negativity or ‘controversy’ by getting into arguments with internet trolls. I’m happy to chat with people who don’t ‘get’ my music, but insult me and I leave the conversation – as the person in the conversation who has a reputation of sorts, you’ll never win. So the lesson is, keep such discussions to places you can moderate – Myspace, twitter, facebook fan-page, Ning pages, reverbnation comments, self-hosted forums : all of those are places you can keep the atmosphere at a level you’re socially comfortable with. Don’t feel like you owe airtime to people with a grievance. Deleting insulting posts isn’t censorship, it’s selection – censorship suggests you’re denying them a voice, when actually you’re just choosing not to allow them to hijack YOUR audience. Anyone can set up a blog posting about how much they dislike whoever, they just can’t do it in my forum. Simple as.
Don’t Confuse Inviting Comment With Asking For Advice – a lot of musicians, in order to stimulate conversation, ask their audience for their opinion on their work, be it released work or ‘works in progress’. It’s a good way to start a discussion, but there is a fine line between inviting people to pick their favourites, and getting completely unqualified criticism of your work from people with no idea what you’re actually trying to do.
Crowd-sourcing advice for your music is a sure way of
a) confusing yourself, and
b) losing any sense of a coherent narrative to what you do.
I make it as plain as I can without sounding stuck-up that I don’t make music FOR anyone except me. Not because I don’t care what they think, but because I can’t. I can only soundtrack the world as I see it, as best I can. Someone else telling me what I could do differently to best suit their aesthetic, their view of the world is completely futile.
That’s not to say that I don’t have people whose opinion I trust who can comment and critique what I do – I have a whole list of them – it just that each of them have earned that place over years of listening and conversation. It has context. It’s also certainly not to say that I don’t like hearing what people like and don’t like about what I do. It’s fascinating to hear, and hugely encouraging when people ‘get it’, on whatever level. But as an example, we recently had a letter back from a record label about the Lawson/Dodds/Wood album (have you bought it yet? ) The guy said he really like it, but threw in ‘maybe it needs a female vocal?’ – why? Why would it ‘need’ anything? Why do we need telling that? because we don’t know any female vocalists? The last few gigs we’ve done as a trio have featured one of the finest female vocalists I’ve ever worked with, and if we felt like we needed to add her voice to the album, we’d have done it. I’ve no idea who this dude is, I’m glad he likes the record, but have no real interest in whether or not the album sounds like it needs samples of dogs barking or clowns being kicked squarely in the nuts on it, in his estimations. It’s not that his opinions aren’t valid to him, they just lack context in relation to how and why WE made OUR record.
Talk to your audience like friends
don’t patronise them
don’t shout at them
listen to them but don’t pretend they’re your producers
share things of value with them
invite them into your creative pathway
give away information and ideas that have currency
help them and they’ll help you.
I’ve said before on a number of occasions, my audience is almost always entirely made up of people I’d love to go out for a curry with after the gig and chat to for hours. Demographically, my favourite people in the world are the ones that go to Steve Lawson gigs. If I wasn’t Steve Lawson, I’d be hanging out at his gigs to meet cool people. Somewhere along the line the approach to drawing an audience into your world that I’ve outlined above has worked pretty much perfectly for me.
Take the principles and examples, think about them, discuss them, adapt them, play with them, jump in and try chatting to your fans. See what happens. Please post and thoughts, comments or questions below.
Part 3 I’ll look at some of the software and hardware tools that work best.
October 17th, 2008 · Comments Off on Solobassteve's Social Media Surgery
I’ve finally got round to writing a page on this site about social media consulting – helping out other artists, labels, students etc. with understanding how having a conversation with your audience is preferable to shouting at them.
I’ve been doing this kind of work for years – over the last 7 or 8 years, I’ve had various musicians come to me asking for help with releasing their own music, both the logistics of getting CDs pressed etc. and then how to make their music available and talk to their audience. A lot of people confused new tools with old media, and spent ages trying to rack up as many 10s of thousands of Myspace friends as they could before realising that all of those friends were using them in the way they themselves were being used – as someone to try and broadcast at.
So after the disappointment of trying that, a fair few musicians – from singer-songwriters to fellow solo bassists came to me for some help.
More recently, I’ve been talking about this stuff in Universities, writing about it here and on sites like MusicThinkTank and Creative Choices, and running informal sessions with groups of musicians, as well as continuing to consult with individuals.
And then this week I’ve been helping out on a PR job with a new digital download service, finding bloggers and social media enthusiasts with a connection to the subject who might want to check it out. Having the huge range of connections I’ve made through the disparate bits of my career – all the way back to my days writing for Bassist, Guitarist, Total Guitar etc – has really come into its own.
So I’ve written a page, bringing all that stuff together – if you or someone you know needs some help and advice on such things, read the page, then drop me a line!
September 2nd, 2008 · Comments Off on Video, Greenbelt, blogging and being yourself
OK, I promised a greenbelt round-up, and that’s still on the way, but first (this is backwards, I know) some thoughts on how video worked for us at Greenbelt. By ‘us’, I mean the social media monkeys that were trying to get Greenbelt’s web-presence away from just being a static website into something a little more granular, diffuse, community based and embeddable as conversation-starters…
Jenny was already involved in a more structured, formal process of collecting video interviews and whatnot for promotional usage, but we were all looking for a much more guerilla feel to our social media footage: lots of chatting to camera, unedited interviews, fun stuff from around the site. And, crucially, we wanted a fair bit of it to be watchable live.
After about a month of trying, we finally found a contact at WomWorld – a Nokia promo blog, who would lend us the hardware we needed to do the project – namely, 4 Nokia N82s and one Nokia N95. Yay for Nokia and their lovely bloggers! It all happened so late in the day that the phones were sent direct to the festival site, and we had very little time to trail what we were doing, or to get conversant with everything that the phones could do. Still, we’ve managed, so far, to rack up well over 8000 views on the Greenbelt Group at Qik.com and Mike opted to record video at higher quality and post it to his YouTube Channel – he produced some great video.
Here’s my Qik Channel – the first 50 vids on here are from the festival:
So I did all the interviews you’ve seen embedded here over the last 10 days, and a whole load more footage, had some great feedback to it all, and it’s already cropped up being embedded and linked to on a range of sites, providing a talking point for those who were and those who weren’t at the festival.
It was a fantastic validation of two things – firstly, the importance of embeddable, linkable social media for starting conversations about any event. And secondly, the importance of video in getting the ‘feel‘ of any event across. blogging, texting, tweeting, even audio recordings go some way to creating a ‘buzz’, but nothing has the impact that video has… if Greenbelt are bright, they’ll get behind this nexy year, resource it, promote it, and they could have a virtual attendance bigger than that actual attendance…
June 22nd, 2008 · Comments Off on Buzz experiment thoughts: Measuring Levels Of Connection…
The other day I wrote my first post for MusicThinkTank.com – a really great collaborative blog with contributors from across the spectrum of ‘what’s happening in the music industry these days?’ – I was really excited to be asked to blog for them, as there are some fantastic thinkers writing for the site that I’ve learned a lot from over the years. (please feel free to read the post and comment over there)
One of the really nice things about writing for them is the brief to be brief. So my first post is just that – short and to the point. But it does mean that I get to expand on the thoughts over here
So, as I say over there, one of the things that the buzz exercises are making me think about and be more aware of is the whole area of ‘level of connection’ or ‘depth of impact’. There are two vague levels on which this stuff can be measured – abstract and metric. The abstract level is probably best summed up as ‘your own perception of the level of ambient awareness’ – or just the sense that more people seem to be clocking who you are and what you do.
The metric level is actually a whole series of interlocking metrics measuring LOADS of different ways that people engage with what you do: from audience attendance at gigs, CD and download sales, free download hits, web page hits, return visits, RSS feed subscribers, mentions on other people’s blogs and web forums, quantity of email interactions… etc. etc.
What’s vitally important to remember here is that what you’re dealing with is not a set of statistics that need improving, but a number of unique individuals who are all engaging what an aspect or aspects of ‘that thing you do’ in subtle and unique ways, and are all in a position to be drawn closer into what you do, if only it is presented to them in a way that is relevant and of value.
But in order to understand and quantify where each of those people are in their relationship with you, we first need to come up with some vague staging posts along the way, from no knowledge of even the area you work in to becoming a patron/sponsor/financier of what you do.
Let’s have a look at a few of those introductory stages:
Notice that a person’s level of connection with you begins before they even know who you are: knowing something about your field is a level of connection – it’s latent, but can prove vital to them a) finding you and b) understanding what you do. So for me, it really helps whenever anyone else is successful as a solo bassist and/or musician using looping. Every time KT Tunstall or Imogen Heap does some live looping on TV, it expands my pool of latent connection. Every time Victor Wooten plays a solo spot in a Flecktones gig, and a bunch of non-bassists see how cool solo bass can be, my pool of latent connection expands.
As and when those people are drawn into my orbit, they’ll have some frame of reference for what it is that I do, something to relate it to, a peg on which to hang their labels for it, beyond ‘nice music’. They’ll see it as a cool hip thing, and I’ll piggy-back on the residual level of cool that solo bass or looping has for them. This, in my experience, has way more real-world lasting value than the pretense that what you’re doing is utterly unique and groundbreaking. The majority of people connect better with familiarity than they do with ‘extreme novelty’…
The first level of actualised connection is name recognition. How many times have you had a conversation with someone who says ‘do you know ******’ and you say ‘I’ve heard the name’… and often you have. You know precious little about them, if anything, but their name is there, in your sphere somewhere.
If that happens 2 or 3 times with the same person, your curiosity is tweaked and you may google them, especially if you’re sat in front of a computer when it happens. And name recognition turns to first level engagement with what you do – finding whichever web-presence ranks highest in google for you and checking it out… So they’ve found you, and have done so based on the feeling that they might be missing out by not knowing about you…
The obvious point to make here is that this relies on them meeting 2 or 3 people who are inspired to talk about what you do – something that is latent in a lot of your audience, most likely. There’ll be a whole load of people who like what you do who don’t think to talk about it, cos they don’t realise you need it. As I’ve said many times, and will keep saying til people realise it’s true, I’m utterly reliant on word of mouth to get people to hear about what I do – both because I can’t afford broadcast ad-space and because I dip under the radar of most mainstream music media channels… the occasional play on Radio 3 or 6Music and the very occasional article in the national press can’t sustain any level of buzz enough to help support a career – though it’s great to have listeners now who first heard me on Late Junction or read about me in a mag (I’ve been interviewed by, reviewed by or featured in The Sunday Times, Jazzwise, Bassist, Guitarist, Bass Player, Bass Frontiers, Total Guitar… etc. etc. and lots of music related websites. Sounds a lot bunched together like that, but means precious little when spread out over 9 years in the context of building a career… …more on the real importance of reviews and interviews coming soon!)
But how is that measured? We as musicians need to make ourselves available for feedback – whether it be email, forums, tweets, myspace comments, blog comments, last.fm shout-box comments… Encouraging a culture of “letting artists know that we’ve found them and we like them” is a huge part of making music ‘sticky’, so that it pollenates beyond our ‘primary reach’.
So, comment thread: other than me (though if you’ve just discovered me, you can tell me where too!), who was the last independent artist you heard that got you excited? Feel free to video comment and play some of the music in the background
[This started out as being my first post for MusicThinkTank.com, a site I’ve been invited to blog for, but ended up far too long to post there, so I’ll put it here, and post something else there… ]
So Trent Reznor has gone one step further than he did with Ghosts, and is giving all of his new album away TOTALLY for free. No high dollar packages – at least for now – just free downloads, including putting massively hi-res versions on Bit Torrent, with a CD/Vinyl release to follow in July. (No mention yet of extra tracks on the physical release)…
Since Radiohead and Prince ‘gave albums away’ last year, we’ve all been talking endlessly about whether or not all music should be ‘free’, whether this is the new model that we should all adopt.
Two things are clear about Radiohead, Prince and Trent Reznor – (1) they’re all massively wealthy, and (2) all could guarantee massive press coverage for a move as ‘bold’ as giving a record away.
From those two points, I think it’s easy to see why modeling our marketing strategies against these artists is a non-starter. Unless you’re independently wealthy, or have the kind of day-job that affords you both the time and resources to tour heavily to symbiotically promote YOU via the free downloads and the tour, there’s not really a comparison financially.
And as anyone knows who’s ever paid for print advertising, column inches are incredibly valuable – the value of the coverage that Radiohead got for ‘giving their music away for free’ must’ve run into millions of pounds worldwide – a new Radiohead album is frontpage news in Q and Spin, but not in all the national newspapers around the world that covered it as a lead story, or on the television news programmes that led with it.
Copying the actions of celebrity millionaires is a bizarre kind of aspirational living – similar to that which drives Grazia-buying women to copy the fashions of the wives of sportsmen, and which causes millions of Americans vote for a political system that will leave them considerably financially worse off, ‘just in case they ever get rich’ – the myth of the American Dream, that anyone can get rich, keeps a lot of poor people voting for low taxation & lower government spending, because they’d hate to have their money taken off them when they get rich, despite the statistics showing that a minute number of people ever make the kind of quantum leaps in earnings that take even middle-income workers into the world of the super-rich. [I know there are a lot of other reasons why people might vote Republican or Libertarian, so please, no political comments on this one 😉 ]
Musicians are following suit, taking at face value the idea that Radiohead, NIN et al. gave away their music for ‘free’ and not looking at the massive value it carried as a press-generator for them in a way that just doesn’t work if you haven’t already had millions spent on you over years and years to get you to the place where your ‘free’ album is front page news.
Clearly, me ‘giving my music away’ and Radiohead ‘giving their music away’ are not comparable situations. Not at all.
For one thing, I’m a solo bass player. In a world where ‘pop’ music is driven by two main things – singing and drumming – I play instrumental music without a drummer, often without a fixed rhythm at all. Copying the broadcast-focussed actions of a bunch of zeitgeist-defining millionaire pop-stars is about as useful to me understanding my audience as putting videos of me reading Shakespeare on Youtube would be, just because a lot of people like Shakespeare.
Getting sidetracked by the aspiration to be a rock ‘n’ roll superstar is career suicide for an artist still needing to generate an audience to be monetized. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, in the new music economy, any strategy that relies on Broadcast media but doesn’t have millions of dollars to invest to get that rolling is doomed to failure.
Yes, there’s the chance that something you ‘give away’ will ‘go viral’. There’s also a chance that you’ll win the lottery and be able to pay for all that lovely broadcast airtime you so crave. Neither happen anywhere near frequently enough to be statistically significant when planning how to build an audience and connect with them.
[this is the point that this post becomes ‘Social Media Thoughts Pt 5′]
No, we need to think differently, and the bit that we do have control over is the conversation. The back-and-forth with our audience, our friends and our peers about what we do and why we do it, framing out art in a dialogue about what it is, why it exists and the ways that people who like it have to support it.
That’s what social media presents us with. I can answer in-depth questions about what I do on the forum, I can invite comment about what I do, here on the blog via comments, I can answer one-line questions and field comments about gigs via twitter, creating a buzz about it amongst those people who get to hear about it.
Last Tuesday I did a gig at Darbucka, with Lobelia, and with the Lawson/Dodds/Wood trio (apparently we’re changing the order of the names in the band name – it’s getting very Spinal Tap! ), and with special guests Lloyd Davis and Miriam Jones. Almost everyone there got in for free. The guestlist was HUGE. We made so little on the door as to be insignificant. However, the audience were, for the first time in AGES, largely people who’d never seen me play before, and as a result I sold more CDs at the gig that I have in ages at a Darbucka show. Miriam sold some CDs too, and the buzz afterwards on Twitter was huge – way more people talking about that gig via Twitter than any previous gig I’ve done. I got a lot of messages from people who were really sorry to have missed it, wanting to know when we’re playing again, and a lot of people downloading the free albums, and others buying Cds and downloads from the shop off the back of the gig. And there’s a LOT of talk about the forthcoming albums from both Lobelia and I and the trio…
So am I anti-free? Clearly not, the gig was essentially ‘free’, for most of the audience, but it was a different kind of free. It was free with context, free with value, in that everyone who was put on the guestlist was grateful, came with a sense of excitement and expectation, and went home talking about the gig. The music became a social object, something with value and cache, all of which is there to be monetized at a later date.
The bottom line is Don’t give it away for nothing, but the currency you trade in doesn’t have to be money
The gig, the music and my relationship with the people there was framed within the context of a series of social media-enabled conversations. I’m not suddenly going to fill Wembley by doing this, but the desire to fill Wembley is a destructive greedy pipe dream that ignores the beauty and value in where my music, career, and relationship with my audience is at NOW. I may one day fill Wembley, but I may also one day meet a benevolent billionaire on a plane who decides to sponsor my music to the tune of £200,000 a year, expecting nothing in return. Neither are a good plan to base a marketing strategy on.
So, forget about the mis-use of the word ‘free’ as applied to the ‘music in exchange for press coverage and gig promotion’ that already-successful multi-million-selling Rock stars do, and start focussing on the conversation you can have with your audience, using your music as a social object around which to build value, cache, excitement, events and value added product/scarcity-based revenue streams.
(A LOT of the stuff in this post is talked about in the Creative Coffee Club podcast That I recorded with Penny Jackson – If you’re interested in this stuff, you really ought to listen to it… )
So, from my own ill-formed thoughts on how to use Social Media as a way of connecting with an audience, I started reading more about the way other people were doing the same thing, and watching what other musicians did. There’s been a lot of cross-pollenation, as musicians who’ve taken some of my ideas have gone further with them in a much shorter space of time than I ever have – Jeff Schmidt is a good example of this.
Jeff’s got a pretty huge profile given the very short space of time in which he’s been doing this solo bass stuff. He went from exploring solo bass ideas at a masterclass I was giving to winning international competitions and building an online fanbase in just a few months. A lot of his spread was via the social media of Myspace, his blog, bass forums and videos. His playing is at times really immediately impressive which got a lot of people embedding clips of his music in a ‘wow, check this dude out!’ kind of way, and word spread fast. A lot faster than it ever has for me online… And from his thinking about this stuff, I’ve picked up all kinds of great ideas and thoughts. Our ongoing conversations on how all this works, via blog comments, twitter and sporadic podcasting – as well as chatting whenever we get to meet up – are a vital part in how I process all this stuff.
Again, the information flow is non-linear – it’s back and forth, it involves a lot of tributaries and cul-de-sacs and hours of mucking about and exploring what’s happening. Both Jeff and I are having conversations with other people, and bring those to the table when we get together. His thinking on it is very much shaped by him having a pretty demanding day job, which frees him up in terms of making money from his music, but ties him down in terms of time spent on music-related stuff… And around us, we’ve built a growing community of musicians – many of them, not surprisingly, solo bassists – who are talking about and using this stuff.
Recently, something fundamentally shifted for me. I started to discuss my ideas on this with non-musicians. Twitter was a big catalyst in the beginning of this, starting to have mini-discussions with people who were actively integrating social media into their daily public dialogue. From there, I discovered about the London Social Media Cafe, and started to have weekly conversations with people from other businesses and artistic disciplines about how the conversation enables us to do what we do, and find an audience, clients, business partners, inspiration and resources.
The format of the Social Media Cafe is so simple, a room is booked upstairs in a pub, a load of curious people turn up, drink coffee, eat croissants and chat about social media stuff. Sometimes it’s about making friends and feeling less isolated. Sometimes it’s about getting work. Sometimes it’s about helping other people process their thoughts on a particular subject. Sometimes it’s about giving and receiving encouragement. Or having a sounding board. And it’s all about the Moo Cards.
The founder, Lloyd Davis, is very much the personality archetype for the SMC – he’s curious, creative, tech-savvy, self employed as a social media consultant and enabler… and loves a good natter!
What is clear from the SMC (and the spin-off gatherings, like the fantastic Creative Coffee Club) is that the level of thinking and dialogue that goes on is pretty much the leading edge of thinking on the subject of social media and it’s relationship to work, innovation, entrepreneurship, the arts, creativity etc. – certainly that I’ve ever come across. I’ve listened to keynote speeches from expos and new media gatherings around the world and often things that are presented as revolutionary and new in those settings are just taken as read at the SMC and are part of the way we daily live. If I worked for a media agency or corporation, I’d be biting Lloyd’s hand off to pay for access to the collective minds of the SMC! I can’t imagine a better group to bounce ideas off, or get feedback from. The various sponsors of the Friday morning get togethers understand this.
The other key part of it for me has been about reinvention – a lot of my geek friends that I’ve known for years have watched me go from a website with scrolling text and animated gifs with a blog just written in HTML, through all of my new media mistakes and false starts, and so are less likely to be invigorated by my take on Social Media. They’ve heard all of my thoughts in their ill-formed half-baked state and as such, hear what I’m saying now in that light. That’s a useful thing, in that it stops me from thinking I’m the business when in fact I’m just writing up here what happens in my life, but it does mean that taking the more refined, nuanced, considered version of it into an environment where the tall bloke with the big hair and furry coats is a new face on the geek-scene is a good testing ground for it as a body of thought.
I’m getting to abstract from a musical context the principles behind the social media interaction discussion and instead of solo bass, to talk about film or books, computer games or education, and see how those scenarios throw light on the process, on the concept, on the whole area of looking at the failure of broadcast media to engage an audience, and the need for pathways of interaction between ‘content providers’ and consumers.
Another key piece in my thinking on this over the last 6 weeks or so has been David Jennings brilliant book Net, Blog And Rock ‘n’ Roll, which is a wonderful look at the way that people find information and how that plays out on the web in relation to music. I’ll not write a full review yet, as I still haven’t finished it, but suffice to say it is utterly vital reading for anyone thinking about this stuff, from any field.
So, what’s the value in the SMC/CCC/Social Media Geek-world for me then? Well, it works on many many levels. It’s a test-bed for ideas, it’s a place where I get to contribute to other people’s conversations, as well as starting my own. My, uhm, esoteric place as a musician makes for a great perspective provider, in that I’m clearly never looking to make millions, but am fiercely protective of my own creative space. I’m a good foil for conversations about the place that ‘meeting the needs of a market’ takes in any business/marketing plan, and maybe that will spill over into some consulting work on that.
I’m also able to collect stories and info from all these various worlds that are hugely useful for talking to music students about this stuff. I’m really looking forward to doing more university sessions on this, and helping music students plan a strategy of engagement, of interaction, of story telling and ‘real’ buzz-building around their music. I’m getting enquiries now from people wanting me to go and talk to their bands about this, which will be a lot of fun too!
And on top of all that, I’ve met a load of really amazing people, who inspire and energise me, who challenge me to up my game, and who encourage me. As well as a whole new load of listeners to my music – that last bit alone makes a lot of this worthwhile, but is actually just an added bonus!
So where do I go from here? I keep talking, keep sharing stories, keep helping musicians, keep learning from the mega-minds at the SMC/CCC/London geek world community, and carry on making the best music I can!
Are you an SMC/CCC attendee? What does it mean to you? What have you got from it?
Steve Lawson has been one of the most inspiring and creative solo bassists to come out of the UK in recent years. His solo albums and collaborative projects have been the talk of the world-wide bass community and have drawn enthusiastic reviews in the press. His latest album ‘Grace And Gratitude’ finds him searching a theme in his own enigmatic way. I spoke to Steve recently and began by asking him about this album.
– ‘Grace And Gratitude’ seems to have been given a good reception in the
press. What kind of response have you had from the fans?
“The response has been fantastic, I’ve been really pleased with how well it’s gone down, especially given that it contains some of the most challenging music that I’ve recorded, and is pretty diverse! I was expecting to get a few e-mails of complaint about the second track (Journey Of A Thousand Miles), as it gets very dissonant, and is quite a big leap on from anything I did on ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’, but my audience have surprised me once again with their broadmindedness!”
– What led you to explore a thematic concept for this latest album, and
how do you set about creating a themed album of instrumental music?
“That’s a really good question, and a tough one to answer! The prompting to explore the theme was that it was a continuation of the way I always write – trying to soundtrack whatever is going on in my head at that time – but discovering that my thoughts at that time were a little more focussed and coherent than when I’m usually making a record. The catalyst for that was the European elections here in the UK. I was insensed by the selfishness and ingratitude of so many on the political right-wing who were blaming people fleeing persecution and destitution in their own countries for coming to England to find something better, and attempting to use them as a scapegoat for all of society’s ills and to gain political ground against those who saw the issues in a more complex and grown up way. But instead of doing an angry record, I decided to channel that thought process into looking at the things that I’m most grateful for, and recognising that I haven’t earned any of them – they are all a gift, which is where the ‘grace’ part comes in.
“So ‘Despite my Worst Intentions’ stems for a feeling of gratitude that none of the really stupid things that I did in my teens managed to ruin my life. ‘The Kindness Of Strangers’ is a fairly obvious one – it’s something that all musicians rely on heavily! ‘The Journey Of A Thousand Miles’ is more about recognising the smallness of everything we do, seeing life as a journey comprised of small steps, and we need to tread carefully. And so on…
“It’s pretty much impossible to pin down the connection between the theme and the music beyond some people just getting it! It’s a feeling, an emotion, it’s ephemeral, and I guess it’s something that is going to connect with people on myriad levels. It’s also highly likely that people are going to hear completely different things in there, and that’s fine too.”
– What’s your favourite piece on ‘G&G’ and why?
“Oh boy, it changes from day to day – I think at the moment, it’s ‘What Did I Do To Deserve This?’ – I just really like the melodic line, and the change in texture as the piece goes on. But I’m also particularly proud of ‘You Can’t Throw It Away (There’s No Such Thing As Away)’ – the way the track develops took me by surprise! That’s the joy of improvising music in the studio – you can hear new things in it as you listen back the same way that the audience does. It’s not all planned out, so there are things that you miss the first time round that grow on you as time goes on.”
– Those of us who bought the album shortly after it’s release were
treated to a superb bonus disc. Please tell our readers how they can
now get hold of that CD for themselves?
“That CD was called ‘Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline Pt II’ – each time I do a CD, I release a second bonus CD for people who order the record in advance of the official release date. This works for two reasons – firstly as an insentive to people to order the CD early on, and thus helping me to recoup my costs quicker. But it’s also a way of me getting some of the enormous amount of music out there for people to hear. I tend to record hours and hours of music for each CD before I decide on which tracks to release. Some of it is pretty bad, so that gets scrapped, but for each CD, I end up with at least two albums worth of release-quality material, so this enables to get that out.
“Now that I’ve got a web-shop that can handle download sales, I’ve been able to put ‘Lessons Learned Pt II’ up as a download sale, so people who’ve only discovered what I’m up to since the new album has been released can go back and start to fill in some of the blanks in their CD collections. It’s also meant that I can keep my debut solo album, ‘And Nothing But The Bass’ available, even though it’s sold out. Instead of repressing, I’ve just made it available as a low-cost download.”
– In the past few years you have alternately released solo albums
followed by albums of collaborative duets. Does this mean we are due
another duets album and if so what’s in the pipeline?
“At the moment I’m not certain what I’m going to do next. I do have a lot of duo material recorded with pedal steel guitarist, BJ Cole. BJ and I have been playing together for over a year now, and been experimenting with various approaches to combining out sounds. It’s not been an easy one, given that both of us are capable of making so much noise! But we’re beginning to find the right combination, so that might happen.
“I’m also planning to try some gigs with Theo Travis, but with a drummer added to the mix. We’ve a couple of people in mind, and will be experimenting over the new couple of months. The tracks that we recorded on ‘For The Love Of Open Spaces’ have been evolving on the live gigs that we’ve done, and it’d be great to try taking them to another place with a drummer.
“And work has also begun on Jez Carr’s debut all-solo album – so while I won’t be playing on that, I’ll be helping to produce that with him. Jez is an amazing musician, and looking forward to being able to follow up Conversations within the next couple of years too.
– Have you any plans for making a duets album with another bassist and if
“I’ve been gigging a lot over the last couple of years with Michael Manring, who is quite simply one of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever heard, let alone shared a stage with, and also one of my favourite people. We’ve made various attempts to record our duo gigs, but so far haven’t had much that’s been release quality, just in terms of the sounds. But we’re both keen to get something happening, so I’d guess that will happen at some point. We’ve even had offers from record labels wanting to fund it, but it’s something that we’re going to take our time with. For starters, Michael’s got a new solo album coming out in the next month or so, so will be promoting that over the next few months.
“But I do love working with other bassists – we think slightly differently from other musicians, and I find that bassists often (not always) make great listeners. I’ve done a few gigs – including the European Bass Day – with John Lester. He’s a singer/songwriter solo bassist from California, now living in Amsterdam, and is a dream to play with – another great musician who’s also a really lovely person.”
– OK, so if you could make a duets album with any musician from history
who would that be?
“To be honest, I feel really fortunate to be working with the people I’m working with. I think the main ones on my ‘wish list’ would be singers like Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn and Jonatha Brooke, but of the three the only one I’ve met is Bruce. I have two main criteria for working on a project like that, there needs to be a musical hook-up, obviously, but it also has to be with someone that I could travel round in a car with for three weeks at a time – life’s too short to work with people you don’t get on with. So once I’ve formed a list of people I’d love to work with, I then have to meet them, and see if I get on with them, as well as there being some mutual musical appreciation!”
– Aside from listening to other musicians, what do you find in life that
inspires the creative process?
“Desperation! I think that when you do music for a living, there’s a fine balance between seeing it as a job and getting tired of it, and feeling liberated by the absence of other things getting in the way. I cross that line fairly regularly. The main thing that keeps me focussed on how lucky I am is practising. I love playing, I love getting together with other musicians to try things out and I love doing gigs. Music is in and of itself inspiring, and not just in a notes and melodies sense. There’s something about being around creative people that makes you pursue creativity.
“Beyond that, I find that most things will feed into my music – politics, relationships, faith, films, art, history, fantasy… Loads of things.
“That said, one of my biggest influences is cats – we’ve recently got two new ones, as the Aged Feline, after whom the two ‘Lessons Learned’ CDs were named, passed away in the summer. The new ones can’t replace him, but they are rescue cats, and needed a home. They’re both lovely, and are now the ‘Fairly Aged Felines’, who will no doubt have their own line of CDs coming out soon!”
– What nifty little toys have you currently got in your arsenal of
“The current live set up for gigs in the UK is pretty involved – I now have two Lexicon MPX-G2 processors, two Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro + looping devices, a Mackie 1402 desk, and a Korg KP-II Kaoss Pad. It gives me so many great options and allows me to loop and process the musicians I’m working with as well! The move to a stereo set-up, and the switch to AccuGroove speaker cabinets has made my whole sound much clearer and less coloured. I’ve used the PA for voice, sax, piano and classical guitar as well, and it sounds better than any equivalent sized PA that I’ve ever used!
“Throw in three Modulus basses and an E-Bow and you’ve got my live rig.”
– What are the plans for any live dates in the near future?
“At the moment, I’m sorting out some dates for California in late January. For the UK, I’m working on some dates in March with Matthew Garrison, and will hopefully have some dates later on in the year with acoustic guitarist, Eric Roche, as well as a smattering of other solo dates here and there.”
You can check out all of Steve’s albums (and buy them!) at this website www.stevelawson.net, there are some free download tracks there and plenty of interviews and reviews to read.
“Steve’s complex array of sound and rare, intimate
touch are rapidy turning him into one of the most
influential bassists in the world” – bass guitar magazine
“Lawson’s writing and his phenomenal command of the possibilities of looping creates a compelling and surprising variety of sounds one would never imagine the bass capable of producing.” – JazzWise
“Steve Lawson is a brilliant musician. I’ve known about him and listened to him for many years. He may not be one of the most famous bassists but he is definitely one of the most talented.” – Victor Wooten
“Steve..I look at you as one of the best innovators in the bass community. The path you have chosen to follow is special and deep. If anyone has any issues with this, I feel for them and they should not be paying any attention the what you do. Just move on to a more mundane approach to the instrument and be happy. You are a gift and I love your playing and concept.” – Leland Sklar
“one of the most gifted solo bass players on the planet” – Ian Peel, Record Collector Magazine
“sensuous melodies intertwine and fall away with the intimacy of Talk Talk?s Spirit of Eden and the cinematic production values of Brian Eno” – Sid Smith
“Lawson’s solo bass compositions include palettes of lush sonic soundscapes and layers of ambient textures which have helped to redefine the art of looping and live performance as a solo bassist.” – The International Insitute Of Bass
“one of today’s most inventive and original sounding voices on the
electric bass. He is a pioneering innovator in the art of looping.” – cliff engel, www.bassically.net
“a one man cosmic symphony” – Jerry Kranitz, www.aural-innovations.com
“Taking you from new-age jazz to Starsky and Hutch, this solo bassist is a must-see for anyone who’s ever
harboured dreams of being a professional musician. Catch him while he’s hot!” (4/5) – ThreeWeeks
“Lawson is a master of a whole universe of sounds…a truly original talent” – JazzWise
“Steve Lawson is better than good… …[his] sheer virtuosity communicates an infectious love for the music.” – Good Times Santa Cruz.
“the life affirming stuff of dreams” Sue Edwards, Royal Festival Hall.
About the cds –
“What a beautiful recording! This is perhaps the best argument yet that the bass is a versatile, deeply expressive instrument and in the hands of a brilliant and visionary artist like Steve, is capable of making music of enormous emotional and musical depth. Please buy a copy and share it with your friends and family. I think they’ll thank you for it!” – Michael Manring.
“beautifully performed throughout” – Guitarist Magazine (uk)
“From the opening trills of ‘Flutter’ it’s clear that this is going to be an extraordinary album…
…Steve’s complex array of sound and rare, intimate touch are rapidly turning him into one of the most influential bassists in
the world.” – Bass Guitar Magazine (uk)
“one of the most refreshing, listenable and unpretentious albums i have heard in one long time!” – warren murchie, global bass magazine (Canada)
“i encourage the rest of the world to get this album and find out just how versatile a bass guitar can be – 10/10 “- cross rhythms magazine (uk)
“A excellent set of truly inspired improvisational music.” – aural innovations e-zine. (US)
“Frisell, Fripp and Garbarek revisited in unique ways.” – JazzUK Magazine. (UK)
“steve has something all his own, and with it a bright future as a solo bass performer and likely anything else he chooses along the way. pick it up now so you can say you know of him from the beginning.” – bass frontiers magazine (us)
“I highly recommend this CD! As Steve’s playing and concept grow he makes ever more gorgeous and engaging music that really demonstrates the expressive depth of the bass. The richness of this music makes for a rewarding listening experience on all levels and I think Steve’s approach represents a real step forward for the art of solo bass.” – Michael Manring.
“All in all, “and nothing but the bass”, is a most delectable and auspicious debut release from a very talented artist with the vision and ability to think and play outside the box. Definitely recommended listening” – www.ambientvisions.com (US)
“Take the playing expertise of Phil Keaggy mix in a healthy dose of the solo work of Robert Fripp and transfer that to a six string fretless bass guitar. What you have as a result of the best of both is a gentleman known as Steve Lawson.” – www.tollbooth.org (US)
“On technical terms alone, Lawson holds his end up alongside American stars of the lyrical bass suchas Victor Wooten or Michael Manring. But his work showcases not only prodigious playing talent
but also a thorough lack of self-consciousness about engaging with his listeners.” – Misfit City E-zine (UK)
“Using only a couple basses and a handful of electronic gadgets, Lawson skillfully paints sonic textures of ambient soundscapes with adventurous soloing and masterful layering.” – www.bassically.net (US)
” This is such a special album that a short review like this can hardly do it justice. The moody melody of ‘Need You Now’, the funky slap and pop of ‘Channel Surfing’, the atmospheric ‘Jimmy James’, all these and every other track are worthy of careful examination and I only have 200 words! ‘Chicken’ is an album that invites you to sit back,
close your eyes and get involved in it’s shimmering melodic beauty for an hour.” – Euphoria Magazine (UK)
“The marvelously musical result on Lawson’s second [solo] album, which tends toward a mellow, ambient vibe that sometimes recalls new age
music and ’80s art-rock, has as much to do with Lawson’s melodic sense as it does to do with his technical mastery.” – Bass Player Magazine.
“Folk music, Frippertronics, fretless Jaco Pastorius flights, country melodies and world-music trance epics mingle here, plus a few hints of past effects-pedal kings like Dean Carter or Pat Orchard. And it’s utterly inclusive music, lacking the smugness and self-love that blight many solo instrumental jaunts, and more interested in raising a happy smile rather than pulling an anguished ‘guitar face’ ” – Organ Magazine (UK)
“In summary, Lawson succeeds in showcasing the range of his instruments’ possibilities while also creating enjoyable and interesting music. The album’s real strength
lies in it’s variety, from Frippoid soundscapes, to jazz, and ambient space. – www.aural-innovations.com (US)
“On the last piece – “Pillow Mountain” – Lawson shows that, with a few electronic gizmos, even very “unbasslike” sounds can be produced. A
wonderfully melancholic fretless solo is played over an underlying mood reminiscent of Brian Eno. Beautiful.” – Jazz Dimensions Magazine (Germany)
“Only a musician with great talent and sensitivity can provoke such emotions, giving us these 52 minutes of pathos from solo bass and effects.” – No Warning e-zine (Italy)
“Steve Lawson [is an] innovative bassist dedicated to stretching the boundaries of bass. On Lawson’s And Nothing but the Bass album,
the simple boom-di-boom we know as bass is transformed into a spray of chords, arpeggios, hammer-ons and rangy melodic runs, flecked in harmonics and reinvented by effects.” – San Jose Metro (US)
“Lawson and Carr alternate playing Jekyl to the other’s Hyde. Dreamy pastoral visions interrupted by an invasion of drunk Martians. Steve’s sonic pallette allows him to blend beautifully, or create havoc, a dichotomy he clearly enjoys. A fascinating listen. A Little Nitrous Music anyone?”
– Ed Friedland, Bass Player Magazine (US)
“The music Steve and Jez make is reflective, intimate and powerful. It takes you on a journey that is
simultaneously familiar and exotic, engaging and serene.” – Michael Manring
” ‘Conversations’ finds pianist Jez Carr and bassist/loopist Steve Lawson deftly walking a fine line between
new age and avant-garde, drifting from meditative serenity to angular abstraction so smoothly that the seams
barely show. With its extended and often reflective feel, the highly-attuned duo improvisations allude to the
vintage eras of record labels like ECM or Windham Hill.” – Andre LaFosse (guitar looping genius)
“This is subtle music that demands your undivided attention.” – www.aural-innovations.com
“Close to perfection… …Magnificent” – No Warning (Italian e-zine)
“I can’t say enough to recommend this CD adequately. Just do yourself a favor and get it if you haven’t already.”- Ted Killian, Loopers Delight.
” There’s music here to appeal to a diverse crowd… from space ambient to jazz fans to prog fans. And I can’t imagine any musician who wouldn’t appreciate the results of what are actually solo performances. Recommended.” – www.aural-innovations.com
About Steve’s gigs…
“Most bass players settle for one distinctive tone and make it their own, yet solo loop guru Lawson is a master
of a whole universe of sounds all conjured from his fretless six-string bass. It’s a feat equivalent to juggling
half-a-dozen lit torches that not only he makes look and sound effortless, but his sense of otherworldly narratives
makes his a truly original talent.” – JazzWise magazine.
“Steve’s style is to look like he never knows what he’s doing in the first place,
he talks nonsense to distract you from how frighteningly good he is at what he does.” – www.bassworld.co.uk
“steve plays with a wonderful fluidity. his fingers glide lovingly, effortlessly over the fretless, the chording and intonation never less than perfect. whether a simple, relaxed glissade or a line demanding
huge control and dexterity, his fingers did the talking.” – michael cowton, journalist and author of ‘level 42 – the definitive biography’ (UK)
“[steve is] very much his own musician, and one capable of taking on any of the american virtuosi on equal terms… his improvised melodies…make for an assertive and individual new voice.”- dann chinn, misfit city e-zine (uk)
“…an evening of technological wonder and musical psychadelisizing.” – Santa Cruz Sentinel
“a gifted and imaginative bassist, whose melodic ideas and encyclopedic chordal knowledge are at least equal to many (currently) more well known artists.”- www.globalbass.com online magazine. (Canada)
“Bottom Line: Virtuoso technique + imagination + a vision + improvisation chops to burn = Steve Lawson.”- www.bassically.net (US)
“At last! Steve Lawson – a bassist with a commanding technique that doesn’t mean more notes,
but a truly good sound and great time, with melody a priority. Finally, lots of notes when needed.
How refreshing! Now all we need is a Steve Lawson that plays double bass – are you out there?” – Danny Thompson (double bass legend)
“Steve Lawson has got to be one of the most tasteful bassists I’ve heard in a long time and is certainly a creative
player who focuses on sound and the quality of individual notes, not to mention different ways of speaking with his
instrument.” – Jerry Kranitz, www.aural-innovations.com
“Somehow I had never heard of Steve Lawson before and while at the recent NAMM show a friend of mine dragged me
to a booth to check him out. When I heard Steve play doing a live solo with self accompaniment I was instantly
transported to somewhere beautiful inside, even though we were in Anaheim of all places. The CD does the same
thing for me…I listened to it driving through the desert and again at home…lovely,
wonderful stuff…I’m a fan” – Andy West
(solo artist, bassist with The Dixie Dregs)
“When I first heard Steve Lawson it made me go home and practice my bass again, it was inspiring to hear his use of bass loops with great melodies.
He doesn’t play like a bass player, he plays like a musician. I am going to rip off every idea he has ever had!!” – Matt Bissonette (bassist to the stars!)
“SL – Michael, when you started playing solo bass, there was very little repetoir, and certainly very few precedents for people making a career out of it, or doing whole live gigs like that – who inspired you and what were the pivotal events in your coming to a position where playing solo was a viable option? Can you remember your first ever completely solo gig?
MM -In the beginning my primary inspiration for wanting to play solo bass gigs was just that I loved the sound of the instrument and I thought it really should be heard in an unadorned format where all of its subtle colors could be appreciated. In terms of context, I drew a lot of inspiration from the steel string guitarists who were out there doing solo shows. It was also exciting to hear how solo artists in the jazz realm like Joe Pass or Bill Evans, could instantly take their music anyplace they wanted to – changing tempo, arrangement or dynamics on the fly. Working with Michael Hedges was at tremendous inspiration for me because his whole solo concept was so clear and focused. His solo performance was totally engaging on many levels and experiencing that strengthened my resolve to work with the possibilities of bass as a solo instrument in spite of the opposition that so many folks seemed to have to the idea. I had no idea if anyone would ever want to listen to what I was trying to come up with, but I just felt an overwhelming need to try.
A lot of my pivotal experiences came from composing new pieces or coming up with new concepts. Many of my early pieces were both too hard to play and not terribly appealing to listen to, so it took a while for me to gather enough repertoire to feel like I could give a convincing solo performance. I felt I had to come up with something that was simultaneously interesting and entertaining in order to be viable and to keep from boring everyone to tears. With the prejudice that seemed to exist against the idea of solo bass I figured it really had to be good to work! I’m still trying to find ways to make solo bass more intriguing to an audience.
Throughout the early eighties I had been doing a lot of shows where I would play one or a few solo pieces as part of a larger program, but my first real solo show was in California sometime around 1985. I was just finishing up my first solo record and I remember playing the title track, “Unusual Weather,” “Longhair Mobile” and “Thunder Tactics.” At that time I was living in New York, but I was so impressed with how open and apparently unfazed Californians seemed to be to the whole idea of solo bass that I decided to move here!
Now one for you: I’m fascinated by being alive in this time when we have access to technology that we can use to expand the scope of what’s possible in music. There are pitfalls of course, and I enjoy trying to maintain a balance of sort of high- and low-tech approaches. You have integrated technology into your concept in such an effective way. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this. What are the positives and negatives? Do you have a philosophy or directive you use to decide how to use a particular tool?
SL – That’s a fantastic question! I too am really excited by the possibilities, but am at times overawed by the scope of the technology, both to be an amazing tool, but also to mask the creative process by constricting things. This is particularly true with looping, as the parameters are, on the surface, very clearly defined. So with every new bit of equipment, I allow myself plenty of time to get to know it before subject an audience to it – working with it for hours, and thinking about what’s possible with it, and also just improvising and seeing how it responds to a random element. Nearly all of my best ideas have been mistakes, or at least the product of random events! So my philosophy is to explore the parameters… actually I use a permutation approach that I was messing around with before but which was solidified by watching your video! I took what you were doing with notes on the neck and applied it to the JamMan, exploring all the functions in different combinations. I’ve recently got a Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro, which is an unbelievable bit of technology. I’m taking my time to work through all the functions, seeing how they widen my technical options when performing solo, then seeing if they open up new arrangement possibilities for tunes that I’ve been playing for some time. I’m certainly discovering how I can take ‘cell’ musical ideas – fragments of melody or chord sequences – and allow the possibilities of the technology to inform where it goes next. I’m currently using 4 unsync’d loop boxes – the Gibson EDP, Lexicon JamMan, Line 6 DL4 and Lexicon MPX-G2, which gives me loads of possibilities for shifting soundscapes, and the option of recording lines early on in a piece and then triggering them at various times. So is that a well formulated philosophy? I’m not sure!
MM – I really liked what you said about how you sort of “encounter” a new device. Isn’t it fascinating how, at some point certain tools go from being “toys” to being “instruments.” The only real difference is in the intention of the user, I think. There’s a tendency to think of an instrument as being something necessarily complex and/or subtle, but just the other day I was playing with a bansuri player and I was surprised to see what a very simple instrument it is — just a basic wooden tube with a few strategically placed holes. I’ve always been very moved by the sound of the bansuri and in the hands of someone like Hariprasad Chaurasia it seems infinitely deep. It’s an intriguing thought that almost anything can be an instrument of expression as long as the user has the creativity and imagination to bring it to life. For some folks, electronic effects might just be gimmicks, but you use them to expand the scope of your expressive palette.
SL – On a similar theme, how did your relationship with Joe Zon of Zon Guitars develop and how did the new technical advances of The Hyperbass change the way you write and perform?
MM – In answer to your question, The Hyperbass was an interesting project in that my concept for what I wanted to do with it was pretty well formed before the instrument was constructed. Normally, like you, I usually take a somewhat reactive approach to a new piece of gear — check it out and see what it can do and then start to form a concept around that. In the case of The Hyperbass though, I had been goofing around with things like changing tunings (by turning tuning keys) while I was playing for a while and I wanted to find someone who was interested in building an instrument that would help facilitate that. Turning the keys is fine and all, but it just seemed like there were better, more complete ways to accomplish the task. Everybody who I talked to pretty much thought I was crazy except Joe. In fact, he had a few crazy ideas of his own to toss into the mix! By the time The Hyperbass was finished, I knew just what I wanted to do with it and the first couple of compositions came together very quickly. More recently though, I’ve been having fun finding ways to play it that I never thought would work. Slapping, for instance – I never thought it would even be possible to slap on it because the fingerboard is so long, but I find I’ve been developing a kind of percussive technique based on slap that has really been capturing my imagination lately. I guess it’s that limitations and quirks thing again — I can’t do the typical kind of slapping on The Hyperbass, so that has led me into trying to develop a different kind of style based on slap, but with its own idiosyncrasies. Joe and I have many other design ideas we’re anxious to explore, but sadly it’s hard to find the time and money for it as not that many folks are interested in that type of thing. However, I’m a long, long way from having tapped out the possibilities of The Hyperbass. I’m learning more about it, and more from it everyday.
It’s so interesting too, how sometimes it’s limitations that set us free. There’s that old saying, “limitation is the basis of style” and I think there’s truth to that. Sometimes it’s the quirks of a piece of gear that really give it a defining character. I wonder how you conceive of the boundaries of your instrument. It seems to me that you have incorporated the electronics seamlessly and integrally into the identity of the instrument. Is that true or do you think of the instrument ending at the output jack and everything else as accoutrement? How about the amp and speakers? Cables, even?!
SL – In that respect, I began to think about and conceptualize what I do in a different way after you mentioned that you see bass as being a fusion of acoustic and electric – that the sound is as acoustic in origin as any amplified acoustic instrument. It’s just the degree to which you choose to mess with it – volume is a parameter to be altered just like any other. It’s true that my approach to what I play and how is greatly affected by the gear that I’m using – I’m kind of in awe of guys like yourself who can just sit down and play beautiful music without the need for extra processing – I guess once I got into the processing thing, it sort of attached itself to my whole music making ethos. I still occasionally sit down and try to write completely solo pieces, but I think in layers and textures as much as I do harmony and melody. Sound is my fundamental element in music, not the usual trinity of melody, harmony and rhythm – what I do with that sound is in service of it, rather than the other way round. So in that respect, the electronics the amp, and yes, even the cables have an influence!
MM – Another question for you: I know you have an interesting balance of improvisation and pre-composition in your music. How important is improv in what you do and what different approaches to it do you take? Are there any pieces that you play verbatim?
SL – The balance varies from day to day and gig to gig – improv is vital to that process of allowing randomness into it, and honing my own ability to react and respond to chance events in the music. So even with pieces that are composed, I still tend to flip part of it back to front at some point, or pick a sound I’ve not added in there before, just to go somewhere else with it.
‘The Inner Game’, from my first CD is about as composed as it gets, in that it has an initial loop, opening melody, and a couple of other additions to the loop that are always the same, and then the rest of it is like a jazz tune – soloing over the form. From there, there’s a pretty smooth continuum (cool title for a tune, perhaps? :o) all the way to ‘hit it and see what happens’ at the completely random end, where I not only randomize the pitch and rhythm, but also the techniques, experimenting with whatever idea comes to mind and trying to make it work. I’m also in the middle of an obsession with duo improv at the moment, as I love the conversational aspect, and the give and take, response, direction and comedy of the whole thing – that’s totally the thinking behind the new CD with Jez Carr… I’m planning a whole series of them, recontextualising what I do, in conversation with various improvisers. You seem to work with both extremes – strict composition and free improv, and from listening to your improv projects, you also take ideas that emmerge in improv and develop them into tunes. Do you view improv as a compositional tool or a separate event? How much continuing development goes into the heavily composed tunes? The Enormous Room seems to have space (haha!) for you to react in the moment, and reorder some bits of it, no?
MM – I really like how you are working on expanding the parameters of music. I always feel lucky to be working in music at this time when we have so much control over timbre. It really used to be a subordinate quality after melody, harmony and rhythm, but it’s almost like we get to discover a new world and make new rules (or choose not to make rules!). What a great idea to approach it from the angle of layers, too. Now that you mention it, I really see how your music is structured that way. Of course, you have the timbral imagination and palette to make it work. And all of it originating from what most folks would consider a highly unlikely instrument – because I think most “civilians” see bass as very monochromatic. That’s when art is really fun — when it surprises you, opens up your sense of what’s possible, fires your imagination and delights you all at once. It’s fun to experiment with improvisation, too. For so long in the West, improv has meant jazz blowing over chord changes, but there are so many other options. Timbral improv is a really intriguing idea! I went through a phase when I wanted to avoid improv in my solo concept because I felt like it was kind of a competitive thing. I just have a need to be contrary sometimes, and although I grew up in the jazz tradition I wanted to just go out and play my tunes to allow me to focus all my attention on phrasing, dynamics, articulation, tone, intonation, etc. Sometimes even great improvisers skimp on those areas because the intellectual demands of improv are so great. But these days, like you, I’m really enjoying doing a lot of improv and looking for different improvisation concepts. In playing solo, the improv possibilities are so vast — all the interpretive things I mentioned before, but also tempo, form, etc. before you even get into thinking about playing different notes! And of course, your timbral improv idea is a whole other realm. I also vary the improv in my solo shows like you do. I have some tunes like “Adhan,” which are just sort of general sets of tendencies and parameters for improv while others are pretty much through composed. I always look for what kind of improvisation a piece seems to want to entertain. For a long time I’ve felt that there were some interesting improv possibilities in “The Enormous Room,” and once in a while I find some, but I’m still searching for the methodology for that one. I just listen as deeply as I can to see if I can hear what a piece tells me it wants to do. I agree the duo thing is strong, too, especially in an improv context. It’s interesting how the smallest numbers sometimes seem to have the most significance. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between 14,758 and 14,759 for instance, but the difference between 1 and 2 is huge. Compared to other numbers they are so strange that they’d seem almost surreal if they weren’t so common. (Sorry for the tangent!) In any case, I really look forward to hearing your other interactive projects. Will you keep the same basic premise or do you think you will alter the concept when you have other personalities to interact with?
SL – That numbers idea is a good one – on that theme, I often find that the strangest of thoughts and ideas can influence the way I think about, approach and therefor play music – a single word, such as ‘permutation’ can lead me down a whole other path in a way that affects me far more than messing around with a new scale or whatever would.
For the duo stuff, I guess it will depend on who I’m playing with, and what the sum of their musical journey brings to the project. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I do, but I can be quite forceful in a musical setting like that, which is one of the reasons why on ‘Conversations’, I only used the Line 6 DL4 for all the looping – otherwise, I’d be in danger of drowning out the piano, or just not listening in quite the same intense way as I was able to with the music more open texture that we developed. I have a duo with a a keyboardist/guitarist called Patrick Wood, and what we do it much more heavily layered – I’m using my whole solo set up, and he’s playing keys and guitar, sometimes at the same time! I’m also about to start work with a vibraphonist, which brings it’s own set of unique creative limitations to a project, that will hopefully inspire some new music in me.
MM – On that general train of thought, I’d love to hear your ideas about the concept of “experimental” music. As far as I know, no one has really quite done what you are doing, so you are in a new artistic place. Do you think of it as “experimental” or do you find the term inappropriate? Or is it just a matter of semantics that has nothing to do with actual music making?
SL – I think semantics have everything to do with music, so your perception of the labels that are put on you really impacts the music. ‘Experimental’ is a term with a heck of a lot of baggage. It’s a label I’ve used for my stuff a few times just for ease of use, but there seems to be within in a connotation of it being unmelodic or ‘hard work’, which anyone listening to my first album would be hard pushed to find – a lot of what I’ve done up until now has been conceptually experimental, but harmonically a bit more ‘inside’.
When it comes to labeling or describing what I do, I find that really well written reviews can give me a new insight into my own music! I had one recently from a guitarist/writer in LA who seemed to understand what I was doing and where I was going almost more than I did, and it allowed me to think about what I did in a freer way.
I do think we need some new labels for what’s happening now – the labels that related to jazz and to electronica in the 60s and 70s don’t work for much of what’s happening now – I’m certainly not playing ‘free jazz’ or ‘fusion’ – I think something like ‘open adventurous improv’ would work for me – it carries no history, is very open ended stylistically, but contains a description of the intent of the musicians – to improvise something new, which does ‘need’ to be really weird – or what a violinist I knew described as ‘squeaky gate music’ – but can easily switch from nice harmony to full on noise if that’s where the musicians take it. Again, the duo format allows for a sense of dialogue that isn’t really available anywhere else. I think we did a great job of keeping things conversational and open on the tour with Rick Walker last year, but part of the creative buzz for me was the increased tension of three people all exerting an influence – it became more of a ‘debate’ than a conversation, and that threw out some fascinating music.
It’s a shame that there’s so little conceptualizing that goes on in music – I certainly wouldn’t be playing what I play if my ‘game plan’ were different. So many people just jump in and play without ever thinking why… I can feel this heading towards a question or two about music education, but maybe we’ll leave that for a future issue!”