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Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



The Beauty Of Complexity – Why I Can’t Play Anything Live Off My New Album

September 6th, 2016 · 3 Comments

Right, before the main bit of this post, let’s get some niceness in your ears – my brand new album is here: Hit play while you read this:

…and if you’re in London or Birmingham, come see me play this week – Wednesday (tomorrow!) at the Bulls Head in Barnes, Sunday at Tower Of Song in Birmingham 😉

Now, on with the wordsmithery: 

I’m an improvisor. That much is known, right? But there’s a pretty broad range of approaches to improv and ways of understanding what it means:

  • People who play guitar solos on rock songs are often improvisors.
  • Jazz musicians who play the head then play a solo full of material they’ve culled from the rich recorded history of jazz are improvisors.
  • Classical musicians who can interpret figured bass and play baroque music authentically are improvisors.
  • Free players who actively avoid consonance, western-harmonically-define melodic structure and metric rhythmic combinations are improvisors.

So where does my practice fit? Cos, let’s be honest, a lot of it doesn’t *sound* like improv, right? And the language we have to describe recordings is, quite understandably, about ‘songs’ and ‘compositions’ and ‘arrangements’. And once it’s recorded, it just *is*. The variation in the experience of the music is now all about context and the technology used to turn the digital file into sound… The [lossless] file itself is a fixed entity – if it gets changed, it’s a something else. It ceases to be the thing it was.

But the genesis of the music? That’s all improv. That’s not to say that none of the elements of the tracks on The Surrender Of Time have any precedent – that would be like expecting a conversationalist to invent new words every day to avoid being a script writer.

No, improv forms a distinct set of variables for me in music making, which I’ll attempt to list and explain here.

  1. Vocabulary, not repertoire: If you’re in a band, or planning to play in bands, your greatest asset is a repertoire of songs to call on, in a variety of styles that you’re comfortable with and respectful of. Being a great technician – beyond a fairly basic level of facility – is definitely secondary to your ears, understanding and experience. Your ability to play the songs is everything. The relationship between the songs and the spaces to add your own stuff in is variable depending on the setting, but first of all, you gotta know the songs.

    I know very few songs, comparative to how long I’ve been playing bass. I’m *really* good at learning sets when I need to (this is my job, after all!) but I don’t retain them, and I rarely practice songs between gigs. I don’t sit down and play along with records to practice, and I’ve done hardly any transcription in my life. I got good at it so I could do it when needed, but it ceased to be part of my own creative development when I started putting together the toolkit for making the music I cared about, based on the impact certain practices seemed to have on other players…

    Instead, I spent time – and still spend most of my time – building vocabulary. Working on variations on the building blocks that make up the sound that’s recognisable as me. Expanding the set of harmonic possibilities that follow any chord, building a set of sounds that take that music and give it meaning, working on myriad melodic ideas over all the harmonic areas that I’m finding interesting at the moment. When I hear music that moves me, instead of trying to recreate it, I intently focus on how it makes me feel, and then try to recreate that feeling with my own music. That’s one of the reasons why I can quite unashamedly love my own music – it’s not about an arrogant juxtaposition of what I do alongside what anyone else does, and I don’t necessarily expect anyone else to agree with my enjoyment of it, but if I didn’t love it, it wouldn’t exist.

    So when it comes to making the music, instead of me drawing on a massive catalogue of other people’s songs, or transcriptions of their solos, I’m searching through my own catalogue of sounds and ideas for the right thing to attach to whatever it is that I’m trying to say. It’s soundtracking, in a very unmetaphorical sense. But it also means that I never get to properly ‘re-play’ anything. I don’t do multiple takes of the same ‘piece’. I might spend a day exploring a particular area (similar to the process of working out what a book meant to you by talking to multiple people about it, and refining your own take on it…) but there’s never two ‘takes’ of the same piece. Sometimes multiple versions of that iterative process get released, because they’re always distinct enough to be treated as different works.

  2. Complexity vs Repeatability. So, because I’m not forward-projecting to a time when I need to be able to recreate this music, I can allow it to be WAY more complex that I could ever make a composition. Again, it’s not about relative levels of complexity with other musicians (there are people whose composed work would in many ways be way way harder to remember and recreate than mine…) it’s more about my process – I have very little headspace for spending months learning how to recreate existing work. I don’t operate in a commercial space where that matters… or rather, I’ve consciously constructed an alternate performance space, or slotted into the bits of existing ones where I fit, in ways that mean I don’t have to do that.

    But even then, I do bang up against audience expectation that they’d love to hear a favourite tune…. That’s totally understandable, especially as I spent quite a few years doing just that – playing my own songs, doing a set list… Getting away from that has brought about the single biggest leap forward in my creative process since I first picked up the recorder aged 5. When I listen to my live versions of recorded tunes now, it’s only the deviations from the script that interest me. The start point feels like an unnecessary limiting factor, when that start point could just as easily be a sound as a fixed melody.

    So I stripped back the start point to be vocabulary and emotion based, not ‘skeleton composition’ based. It’s pretty heavily influenced by what Coltrane did in later years, when his compositions got looser and looser and were mostly a vehicle for what came after the bit that anyone was familiar. Or Miles’ 70s work, culled from hours of improvisation. Or Bill Frisell’s live solo excursions.

    The result for me is that I can put things together in a way where the serendipity of how they fall IS the composition.

    The unknown state of just how the loops are going to line up half way through the song, or how that loop is going to interact with the Kaoss Pad I’m going to send it through… it’s not ‘random’, in the way that nothing that’s been looped digitally is ever ‘random’ – as soon as it’s done, the result is inevitable, it’s just that no-one can ever know what that will be. The ratios of loop length, because I don’t sync them, are sufficiently complex as to be unknowable, unlearnable, and thus I get to interact with that complexity like a brilliantly unpredictable creative partner. If I was trying to do things that I could recreate, all that would be lost. And if I did it over fixed ideas that were ‘the song’ (in a more jazz like way) that would feel like an unnecessary limiting factor on just how great things can get when serendipity is your homeboy…

  3. Aesthetic constraint vs ‘industry’ expectation : With all of that process, all of the various inspirations (I’m a VORACIOUS music listener, and treat it like ear-food), I needed to find a way to keep focussed on the musical path that would get me to where I felt I needed to get creatively, not be distracted by the rather narrow expectations the come with the various typical western contexts for music – radio stations that play songs, venues that want to know what you’re playing, audiences who make requests, corporate situations that expect a set list, musician-collaborators who want to play standards, or a set of songs. I needed to break from that. Context-wise, house concerts were that, without a doubt. The strangeness and unfamiliarity of ‘your friend’s house’ as a venue gives me a whole lot of creative latitude to mess with all the other expectations, as well as plenty of time to talk about this stuff between songs without the venue getting annoyed that people aren’t dancing…

    But I also needed a way to do something with all the recordings. Because, the simple set of influences on the actual sound of my work mean that the recordings are experienced as ‘finished works’. I’ve built a live recording set up that is basically a studio. The studio IS my instrument (which Jazzwise VERY perceptively picked up on in their review of The Surrender Of Time) – my musical influences contain a LOT of singer/songwriters, because I’m drawn to storytelling over pyrotechnics, politics over self-aggrandisement, questioning music over music that sees itself as the answer… and singers tend to do that best. The music becomes subservient to what the music is trying to say, whether that’s a death metal band, or a rapper, Joni Mitchell or Cannibal Corpse, Divinity Roxx or The Blue Nile – the music is all about creating the context for the story. I just get to hide my stories a little deeper by leaving out the words 😉

So, the records sound ‘finished’. The language that makes most sense when talking about them is the language of songs, of arranging, or composing. They aren’t ‘jams’ or ‘little grooves I’ve been working on’ or however else people’s unfinished work on YouTube gets described, but they also aren’t things I’ve worked out, learned, done a couple of drop-ins on and chopped the end off to make them work for radio… They are conversation pieces that stem for a pretty highly developed philosophy of what improvising within the limitations of live performance with real-time looping makes possible. We have no real words for that, so I’m perfectly OK with you digging my songs 😉

My process is the result of 20 years of finding out how best to tell the stories I want to tell, to play the music that I hear in my head, and do it in a way that responds to the things I hear missing (for me) in other people’s music. When I hear music that doesn’t work for me, I don’t wish they changed it (telling someone else who hasn’t actually hired you as a teacher how they should play music is some tired lazy shit) I just use that as a nudge to work out what it was that was missing for me emotionally and adjust my musical process to work towards that thing that was missing… The gaps are mine to fill, not theirs. (as an aside, this is the exactly the same point of origin as my response to people who come and tell me what they think I should do, in a ‘you should do a funk record!’ or ‘you should totally do a whole ambient record’ or ‘I wish you’d do more of ****’ – my response is, ‘no, you should! It’s you that wants to hear that! This music is exactly what it’s meant to be – take the inspiration and go make your own music’.)

So anyway, call it a song, choose your favourites and play them over and over, transcribe them if that helps your own practice…just don’t ask me to play any of them at shows… :)

Tags: Music News · Musing on Music · New Music Strategies

5 Solo Bassists Who Shaped My Musical World

January 3rd, 2015 · 6 Comments

It’s a truism that most solo bass struggles in ‘pure’ musical terms. It’s so easy to get caught up justifying our ‘right’ to play solo by doing clever acrobatic things that the meaningful deployment of those acrobatics, or the avoidance of them for more musical ends gets lost along the way, and YouTube ends up as a fumbling bass-circus.

For this reason, there are very few solo bassists in my list of musical influences. But those who are there are towering monuments to what’s possible on this amazing instrument of ours, and their influence on my music and musical outlook is massive.

So, in no particular order, here’s 5 solo bassists who shaped my musical world: [Read more →]

Tags: bass ideas · cool links

Photos from Last Night’s Gig with Jem Godfrey and Andy Edwards

August 11th, 2014 · Comments Off on Photos from Last Night’s Gig with Jem Godfrey and Andy Edwards

Thanks SO much to everyone who came out to the show at Tower Of Song with Jem Godfrey and Andy Edwards. We had a great time, and were delighted with the audience reaction.

Recordings will be available soon in some form or other, but for now, here are some gorgeous photos, taken by Rob Groucutt, to give you a flavour of what it was like :)

Tags: Music News

Some Musical Thoughts On 11 Reasons…

May 15th, 2011 · Comments Off on Some Musical Thoughts On 11 Reasons…

Each of my albums tends to have a different vibe to it, which often manifests itself in the way I use the technology at hand to make it happen… So here’s a few thoughts on how the looping part of the album played out. Half of this was written on the plane on the way over here, the rest, just now. :) Hit play now, so you can hear it while you’re reading… (and if you download it, you’ll also get the PDF that comes with it which has specific program notes for each track, as well as some further thoughts on the project as a whole)

It hadn’t really struck me until listening back to “11 Reasons” on the plane over here to the US that I’ve shifted away from ABAB form on this record.

Unlike on Behind Every Word (the title track and Scott Peck in particular), none of the tunes have a verse and a chorus. They all evolve and morph the way all my music did before I got the Looperlative.

What has changed to make possible this kind of ‘step forward into an old method’ is the degree of subtlety and complexity with which I can manipulate multiple unsynced loops of different lengths – there’s a LOT of that going on on this album, whether in the big ambient passages or while playing with multiple melodic lines and post processing them in real time (and, in some instances, adding some filter-delay afterwards – the privilege of having multiple outputs on the looperlative, and therefor being able to mix things quite specifically once they’ve been recorded). I’m also using more and more synced loops of different lengths (multiples of whatever the original loop is – Travelling North is a prime example)

It’s interesting for me to note this unconscious shift back to the evolutionary model rather than the more traditional “Lamarckist” jumping back and forth between distinct sections. Perhaps in noting the change, I’m setting myself up to do a project of highly complex multiple section loop tunes … you heard the rumour here first :)

Tags: Musing on Music

Steve and Lobelia House Concert tour 2011

January 17th, 2011 · 12 Comments

Plans are now underway for us to return to the US this May/June and play some house concerts. We had such a great time last year on our visit, and we’ve already talked to many of our hosts from last year about return visits.

This week is when we start putting in dates and routing our trip – we’ll be flying into and out of New York, in at the beginning of May, out at the end of June/beginning of July. Aside from time with family and friends, what happens in between is largely reliant on people booking us for house concerts.

What’s a house concert? [Read more →]

Tags: gig dates · Music News

Musicians Who Use Looping: A Beginner’s Guide.

October 31st, 2010 · 4 Comments

As you’re no doubt more than well aware, the whole process of real time looping is essential to the way I make music, whether it be live or in the studio, solo or collaborating – it’s a very long time since I last did a gig that didn’t have some element of looping in it. Certainly, one listen to my latest solo live album shows that – this is entirely live, there’s nothing added here, just the gig… (click the ‘buy’ button below to download the album and pay whatever you think it’s worth for it)

[Jan 2014 edit] And my latest project, FingerPainting is a duo (and sometimes a trio) that relies on multiple musicians looping at once and sometimes looping each other! Every note that Daniel Berkman and I have ever played together has been released – check it out in the sidebar there, or get all 10 shows for just £10 here.

The basic idea is this – a looper is an effect that allows the musician to record what they are playing and then loop it while they play over the top. Almost all looping devices allow you to do multiple layers on that loop, and some of them allow you to do fun things to the loop once it’s recorded – reverse it, slow it down, speed it up, stop it, restart it, remove some or all of the layers… [Read more →]

Tags: Musing on Music

New Set Of Tracks On Soundcloud – Previously Unreleased Material

September 19th, 2010 · Comments Off on New Set Of Tracks On Soundcloud – Previously Unreleased Material

I’ve been uploading these over the last while – some are brand new experiments, a lot of them are things I’ve found on my hard drive recently, of indeterminate origin! I’ll keep adding to the set, but for now, you can have a listen to these (some of them are downloadable if you go to the individual track pages). And it includes my recording of Portrait Of Tracy that I did for Total Guitar Magazine.

There are another handful of tunes to go up – maybe more once I get the hard drive on my desktop computer back up and running. Goodness knows what’s hidden away on there.

And then there’s the minidiscs..!

New Unreleased Tracks by solobasssteve

Tags: Music News

Slow Food, Track By Track, Pt 5 – Ten Years Of Listening.

September 13th, 2010 · Comments Off on Slow Food, Track By Track, Pt 5 – Ten Years Of Listening.

Click here to download Ten years of listening.

The longest track on the album. A slow build with some pretty big transitions, and a Big Distorted Solo™. The only way to navigating those transitions is to rely on deep listening.

Trip and I have been listening to each other for over a decade. I’m always as happy to listen to him play as I am to be playing the music myself. That’s the key to improv – play with people who make nicer noises than you can imagine making yourself. Removes the tendency to over-play.

So we listen, we react, we surprise each other and play catch-up. But after a decade of listening, the surprises get easier to adjust to :)

There are some amazing moments in this tune, too many amazing moments to list them all here. And there are sounds that you’d be forgiven for thinking were me that are actually Trip. He really stretches out on this, and the blend between our sounds has never been more integrated and organic.

This was also the first track off the album made available to hear – over on Soundcloud, it’s annotated with who’s doing what

Tags: Music News · Musing on Music

Slow Food, Track By Track, Pt 4 – Imaginary Robot Ninja Assistant

September 2nd, 2010 · 1 Comment

You can download Imaginary Robot Ninja Assistant here, and the whole Slow Food album here.

Who doesn’t have an imaginary robot ninja assistant? Fixing stuff, being awesome, ass-kicking when needed, and, uhm, assisting…

When I finally get my real Robot Ninja Assistant, it will sing like this track.

And I’d understand every word it sang.

This is how all robots should sing.

It’s a love song.

Nowhere near as dark as it sounds to us.

Robot harmony is different, y’see, not based on dodgy fudged physics. Theirs is the essence of rock ‘n’ roll.

And ninjas.

The main loop on this is, I think, me looping some of Trip’s weird noises. I don’t actually join in til about half way through. Quality weirdness :)

Tags: Music News · Musing on Music

Slow Food, Track By Track, Pt 3 – Growing Up And Moving On

August 31st, 2010 · Comments Off on Slow Food, Track By Track, Pt 3 – Growing Up And Moving On

[sorry for the break in posts – was away at Greenbelt over the weekend]

You can download Growing Up And Moving On here, or the whole Slow Food album here.

This was the first thing we recorded. It is, I think the most edited too… Perhaps.

Nerves? Expectations?

Trip and I met 11 years ago. We wouldn’t have played like this then. We were young. Unformed. A different world.

We’ve moved on, up, out, through… Sometimes in parallel, sometimes divergent, always with a bass in hand.

It’s a slow build, the underlying loop changes not. The emotions evolve. We’re exploring, tentatively (it’s the first thing we played, remember?) Satisfied as it unfolds.

It’s good. Let’s play more.

Tags: Music News · Musing on Music