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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

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

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

London Gig With Michael Manring – October 20th!

September 17th, 2010 · Comments Off on London Gig With Michael Manring – October 20th!

Yup, Michael and I are back at Round Midnight! Last time we played there we sold it out, people were queued up outside trying to get in, so I heartily suggest that you call and book in advance.

Click here for booking/ticket info.

Playing with Michael is one of my very favouritest things to do as a musician, and listening to him play is one of my favouritest things to do as music fan. So I’m happy as Larry. (Not sure who Larry is, but he must be over the moon right now.)

Here’s a lovely lil’ video from last time we played there:

And here’s our free-to-download live EP, recorded in California a few years back:

Steve Lawson and Michael Manring live at Don Quixotes by solobasssteve

Hope to see you there – PLEASE share this link around, invite friends, and c’mon down. It’s going to be a GREAT show, and probably my last ‘public’ show in London before the end of the year… and I think Alex Bershadsky is joining us, which will be cool.

Tags: gig dates · Music News

And Nothing But The Bass Is 10 Years Old Today.

August 25th, 2010 · 6 Comments

10 years ago today, I received a shipment of CDs from ICC duplication, to the Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham – it was my first solo album, And Nothing But The Bass, and the start of my solo recording career.

Here it is – please download it for free:

10 years on, and I’m less than 24 hours into the life of a brand new album, Slow Food, with Trip Wamsley. It’s been such an amazing journey, not least of all because what seemed like such a weird thing to do back then – to me and to everyone else – is now so normal. The internet is awash with people experimenting with solo bass, and looping crops up everywhere from coffee-shops to the top of the charts.

The gimmick potential diminished many years ago, for which I’m most grateful. It let me get on with making the music that mattered to me, via the method that made most sense.

Solo bass was never a circus trick for me.
I was never interested in looping as a way of showing how clever I could be.
It was a way of me getting the music inside my head out to the world.
I hear things in layers, I hear evolving texture not rock drums and last-chorus-key-changes.

The template is still much the same. I’m just much better at it. The vision is more refined, the tech is better (thank the baby Jesus for Bob Amstadt and the Looperlative) and yes, I’m orders of magnitude more developed as a musician – technically, theoretically, conceptually, melodically… I just make better music happen. At least, I make music happen that is ever-closer to the soundtrack to the inside of my head. And I’m still loving it.

I’m loving the collaborations this has all led me to – the albums with Jez Carr, Theo Travis, Lawson Dodds Wood, Mike Outram and now Trip Wamsley. The gigs with Lobelia, Michael Manring, BJ Cole, Cleveland Watkiss, Julie McKee… The myriad incredible musical moments of the Recycle Collective at Darbucka, The Vortex and Greenbelt.

And I’m grateful to every journalist that’s ever taken the time to listen to and write about the music, every radio DJ that’s ever played it, and every person who has played a CD to their friends and said ‘check this out’, or emailed them a link, burned a CDR for them, emailed them some tracks. It’s all great, and I thank you for it.

So, 10 years on, here’s the new album: Have a listen, enjoy, pay whatever you think its worth. For me, the last 10 years have been priceless.

Tags: Music News · Musing on Music

New Live Album… Recorded Last Week!

June 11th, 2010 · 7 Comments

Ahh, the future – it’s a wonderful place to live.

So, as I said in my last post, our live set up now has a MOTU Ultralite soundcard at the heart of it, is wired with all super-high-quality Evidence Audio Cables and on this tour we’ve got killer live sound from QSC K8 speakers. Which all adds up to us being able to record ourselves, multitracked, on every gig, and to play very well given the consistently marvellous sound that we have at the shows.

So here’s our brand new live album, Live So Far: [Read more →]

Tags: Music News

New House Concert Video

May 13th, 2010 · 3 Comments

We’re just back from a fabulous run of house concerts in England and Scotland. All kinds of good times were had, friends were made, internet chums suddenly existed in meat-space too, and a lot of very fine music happened. Big, big thanks to the truly awesome people who hosted the gigs in Leeds, Camberley and Edinburgh. Expert humans, one and all. [Read more →]

Tags: gig dates · Gig stuff · Music News

New Live Solo Tunes!

February 23rd, 2010 · 6 Comments

Recorded at Friday night’s gig at the Islwyn Guitar Club in Crosskeys, Gwent, South Wales, here are two new tunes that ’emerged’ – they’re both improvs, but I like ’em, so will probably have a bash at something like them for the new album…

The recordings are remarkably good considering they’re just on a little Tascam digital recorder thingie (recorded by Andrew Buckton – fab singer/songwriter who came with me, and sang beautifully on the gig too).

here they are – enjoy!

New Tunes from Islwyn Guitar Club by solobasssteve

Tags: bass ideas · Gig stuff · looping · Music News · site updates

A Decade In Music – The Solo Bass Years.

December 22nd, 2009 · 2 Comments

First Ever Solo Gig, London, December 1999

My first ever solo gig was at the Troubadour in Earls Court, London, on Dec 15th, 1999 – 10 years ago last week.

The eve of the new millennium, and a gig that started with a lie (the lovely chap who booked the gig asked me if I had a whole set of material after seeing me do one solo tune in a band-gig. I lied and said ‘yes’ :) ). It wasn’t the first time I’d played solo bass in public – that was a product demo at the National Music Show for Bassist Magazine in Nov 97. I also played weird improv noise stuff for a contemporary dance company in Nov 98.
[Read more →]

Tags: Gig stuff · Music News · Musing on Music