Interview with me from Bass Guitar Magazine.

Bass Guitar Magazine article photo, cropped from the web page.I’ve been hoping this interview would surface online for a quite a while – Adrian asked a really smart set of questions and, crucially, came back with questions relating to them. Email interviews can be really dull if it’s just a questionnaire (unless it’s MEANT to be a ’20 questions’ type deal…) – because there’s no conversational flow. So as a tip for those of you interviewing online, send 2 or three questions to start with at most, preferably unrelated ones, and then develop each one with questions that follow on…

But I digress, this is about me 🙂 – anyway, it’s a great interview, and I was kinda surprised at the quote in the sell that says,

The unexpected popularity of bass looping in the UK can largely be attributed to Steve Lawson‘,

but I guess there’s some truth in that. It’s probably just that I’m more aware of my own influences than my influence.

So, either click on the photo above, or click here to read the interview

My House Concert Looping Rig.

OK, so it’s christmas day, and I’m blogging, what of it? 🙂 Happy Christmas, y’all. Hope you’re having a fun day. We certainly are here in Ohio.

Anyway, thought I’d do a quick post about my touring looping rig. Here’s the picture:

from the top we have:

Samson S-Mix (mixer)
ART TubeMP Preamp
(next to it is the…)
Lexicon LXP1 reverb.
Looperlative LP1 looper
Lexicon MPX-G2
processor

and on top of the LXP1 we have my Ebow, G7 Capo, Slide, Sennheiser Mic and currently-missing rubbish cell phone (if you see it around, let me know, I can’t find it anywhere). The JBL speakers were provided for the house concert in Milwaukee. We don’t generally travel with speakers in the US, just find people locally to lend us things.

The signal flow is really simple – bass goes into Lexicon MPX-G2, which goes into the S-Mix, and has the ART preamp in the FX loop. Lobelia’s loop mic goes into the LXP1, and that also goes into the S-Mix, which then goes into the Looperlative. The Looperlative then goes out to the desk/PA/Speakers/whatever.

And here’s what’s happening on the floor –

The big pedal, rocked back, is the Visual Volume Pedal.
then an M-Audio expression pedal, which controls the loop volume.
Then a Rolls Midi Wizard that controls the looperlative.
then Another M-Audio expression pedal, for the MPX-G2 (sometimes wah, sometimes volume, sometimes pitch etc.)
then a Roland EV-5, for Loop feedback.
Then a Lexicon footswitch for different stuff on the G2
and finally another EV-5 for track speed on the looperlative.

Meanwhile, Lobelia is using a Roland RC-20 for much of her looping, unless I’m looping her or she’s doing improv stuff through my rig, in which case she just plugs a mic into the volume pedal and uses my bass set-up exactly as-is.

So there you go, a Christmas present in the form of some gear geekness. Post a comment with any specific questions you may have about how it all works 🙂

(the second photo is by the lovely Tracy Apps )

Teaching Thoughts Pt 4 – Pleasing parents is bad for the student.

One of the things I most like about teaching electric bass is that very few kids are ever told by their parents to play it. ‘You need to learn piano/violin/clarinet because I never had the chance’ is the bane of so many teacher’s lives and one of the main driving forces behind kids giving up playing an instrument as soon as they are afford a degree of self determination by their parents.

In all my time teaching bass (15 years) I think I’ve had 3 students ask to do graded exams. In the same time over half the parents that have brought their kids to me have asked whether or not it would be a good idea. There’s an assumption in education these days that people a) need some kind of external certificated validation in order to measure where they are up to and b) that without that, students will lack motivation and will just slack off because no-one’s telling them what to do.

For me as a teacher it’s imperative to get across to my students – especially the younger ones – that them not practicing has no impact on me whatsoever. I can just pick up where we left off in the last lesson as though the time were continuous. The point of practice is never to placate me. Practice serves two purposes – it’s enjoyable (if done right) and you get better – the two are clearly deeply linked. The idea that practice has to be torturous is another crap hang-over from the music education of the early 20th century, where suffering was a signal of how serious you were about what you’re doing. That’s clearly bollocks, especially for people with families, friends, jobs, school work and other interests. Practice time should be valued time in and of itself not just for the pay-off. The pay-off makes it even better, but playing an instrument should be fun!

That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require a large degree of self-discipline, commitment and focus, it’s just that we’re selling kids short by telling them that those things can’t be enjoyable!

These are all elements in my reasoning for not following a syllabus. If a students comes into a lesson, tells me about a gig they just went to, and I then teach them something the band they’ve just seen – whether it be an actual song by them, or something that can be drawn from that music – they can pulled a little closer to the magic at the heart of music. The gap between them and the music they love is lessened and the feeling that the magic is in their reach is heightened.

At the heart of what I teach is a desire to help the student write and play music that can change the world. It might not, but the desire to play the songs that have soundtracked their life – whether that’s Mozart or Metallica, Stockhausen or Stock, Aitken And Waterman – and to then create their own music is what drives individuals to learn an instrument, and pandering to the wishes of pushy parents who want lil’ Tommy to get certificates so they can brag to the other mums and dads about the distinction he scored in his grade 3 exam is the death-knell of lil’ Tommy’s musical aspiration.

Parental encouragement is often an utterly vital and energising force in the music-life of a student. I still take inspiration from my mum’s on going encouragement of what I do, and am thankfully big enough to ignore the distain with which my dad views my musical endeavours. Channeled in the right way, parents can be integral to the musical growth of a student. But if pushy parents are allowed to ride roughshod over what Tommy actually wants to do with music, he’ll end up as one of the 95% who give up before they are 18, and may resent it for decades to come.

We’re your parents an encouragement or a hindrance to your creative path? Comments pleeeeeze

Teaching Ideas Pt 3 – Teaching is therapy

I think it’s safe to say that for almost every person playing a musical instrument, there’s a part of it that is about exploring a part of their character and personality that they don’t get to exercise elsewhere. Whether that’s me as a solo bassist writing music that expresses all the stuff I struggle to put into words (which is why so many of my tunes are inspired by death), or the bloke who works in a garden centre learning speed metal to play in a pub on friday evenings, because he’s desperate for the garden centre to not be the sole defining entity in his life, there’s something that music gives us that would otherwise be sorely missing from our lives.

Being a ‘bassist in a metal band who happens to work in a garden centre’ is actually a pretty cool place to be in life. It has cache with your work friends, it has the security of a wage from the job, and it’s not the kind of job that’s going to drag you off away from rehearsals with your band, which means you can be fairly well committed to what’s going on.

It also often means that you can afford to have – and have time for – lessons. So when I get to meet with players in that situation, and am entrusted with the task of providing them with the tools, the process and the inspiration to learn more about their instrument, my role becomes a rather therapeutic one.

It’s not good enough in that situation to dismiss the style of band the person plays in and hand them pages of scales and arpeggios to learn, along with a load of tunes that you the teacher like.

No, a degree of personalisation – both of content and delivery – has to take place in that kind of transaction for it to be of value. I spend the first couple of lessons with a new student discovering things about them – why they play, what they play, what they do when they first pick up their instrument, and technical bad habits they’ve picked up, any erroneous ‘rules’ they’ve been told by other people about what you can and can’t do with music, any bogus (or useful!) terminology they’ve picked up in the past, and what they instinctively are capable of.

I very often get them improvising in the first lesson, just as a way of showing how lax the rules are on what ‘works’ and doesn’t ‘work’ – within some fairly broad tonal boundaries, anything can sound ‘good’ if you keep it simple enough, and build on it… the value of discovering that creativity doesn’t require induction into Dumbledore’s Inner Circle or the Knights Who Say Ni! or something (see my Creative Choices blog post for more on that).

I also get them working things by ear as early as possible, and encourage them to experiment a lot with fun things that may or may not end up sounding cool…

Why? Music is an incredible space for us to stretch the boundaries of what we define as our own creative limitations. It’s an utterly benign form, given it’s completely abstract nature (lyrics notwithstanding) and as such the worst that happens is you make an unpleasant noise. So you can go nuts and see what happens – it’s like taking a wild lashing serve when you’re break point down in tennis, only nobody loses if you get it wrong. It’s like declaring your love for a colleague on the day they leave the office because you’ll never get another chance, only no-one’s going to laugh at you.

Music is a space in which people can discover what they are capable of, and a good music teacher makes that possible, inspiring and an attractive proposition.

Teaching Ideas Pt 2 – There's no syllabus for punk and reggae.

In the last post, I mentioned that my main aim when teaching is to instill in my students a love of learning. A huge part of me having a right to teach them anything is me respecting the music they listen to. Nothing is a bigger turn off for a student that a dismissive teacher.

At one college I used to teach at, I got hauled over the coals by the head of the place for not giving my drum students a transcription of the parts we were working on when I was teaching them some reggae. “But they’ll never have to read reggae!” was my response. Doesn’t matter, was the come-back, they expect a transcription, it’s a music school and we’re meant to be getting all academic on their asses.

I didn’t give them a transcription. Why? Because Reggae is folk music. It’s an oral tradition, with musicians learning by listening and playing. None of the great reggae bands played off written parts, especially the drummers, and the nuance in the feel and timing in reggae drums would be impossible to notate. To give drummers a score to learn reggae would be like making them listen to Break My Stride by Matthew Wilder as an example of authentic reggae. It would sell them short, ill-prepare them for playing reggae professionally, and would be lying to them about how the great musicians who play that style learn to play like that.

The only place one is ever going to need to read a reggae drum part would be a theatre pit, and even then it’s more likely to just say ‘reggae feel’ or even more patronisingly ‘island feel’…

See, academics in general don’t deal well with folk traditions, especially not contemporary forms of folk music like reggae, punk, hip-hop… the magic in any of those styles is in the subtlety, not in the stuff that can be conveyed on a score. Handing out written bass-parts to ‘Anxious MoFo’ by the Minutemen or ‘Maxwell Murders’ by Rancid isn’t going to make your punk student a better punk player, but getting them hooked on Mike Watt or Matt Freeman’s playing might… That’s not to say they wouldn’t both make a cool transcription exercise as a way of introducing your lil’ punks to the wonders of writing music, but scores are not generally the way that material is passed around in the punk world, and to suggest that it is is disingenuous.

I’m not into lying to my students – I don’t want to make things easy for myself by selling them short on what’s going on with the music they listen to or want to play. If their aim is to be a rock star, I’ll tell them

  • just how unlikely it is,
  • how unpleasant an experience the road to ‘rock stardom’ is for most people and
  • how much better off they can be playing the music they love, finding an audience for it, and letting the ‘lottery of stardom’ bit happen by itself…

What I do want is to teach them

  • how to practice actual music – not just getting good at exercises
  • how to listen and dissect the mechanics of what’s going on in the music they love,
  • how the musicians they admire get to where they are (one of the beauties of having written for a bass mag is I’ve met and interviewed many of my students favourite players – always handy when I’m asked about a particular tune or technique 🙂 )

If I have students who play punk rock, I want to teach them the very best information I can about the world of punk rock, I want to show them how the great punk bassists get their sound, I want to introduce them to the music of the punk pioneers, the influencers of the genre, the attitude behind it… There’s nothing sacrilegious about transcribing punk basslines, but like reggae it’s largely an oral, experiential tradition – turning up to an audition for a punk band with a music stand and pile of manuscript is going to get you laughed out of the room…

As I said before, Context is everything, and there’s no reason to teach out of context, or lie about the context in order to try and shoe-horn one specific set of musical skills into a style that doesn’t require them…

Are there other artistic disciplines that have been spoilt by being “over-taught”? Does this happen with poetry and visual art, that the ‘academicization’ of it misses the mark for large sections of the discipline? Thoughts please…

Teaching ideas part 1. There's no electric bass in most orchestras.

The state of contemporary music teaching in the UK is terrible. Actually, the state of music teaching across the board is pretty awful. But at least with the classical stuff, the method makes sense, even if so many of the teachers are failing to inspire the students (do a straw poll of the people you know, find out how many played an instrument as a kid, and how many quit in their late teens. The percentages should be 90% keeping it up. In reality, well under 5% of the people I know have stuck with it…)

The huge problem with the way that pop/rock/jazz/punk/funk etc. is taught in the UK is that most of the methods are still based around the classical idea that you’re learning repertoire. If you’re learning an orchestral instrument to play orchestral music, there is an expectation that you’ll play your instrument a certain way, learn how to take direction from a conductor and play the way other people want you to. That’s what orchestral musicians get hired to do. Because of this, a set of graded exams that measure how far along that widely recognised scale you are is a great way of providing benchmarks on your journey towards proficiency.

I think I’m on fairly safe ground stating that pretty much no-one takes up the electric bass (or guitar, or drums) in order to play in an orchestra. People play bass for a couple of different reasons – MOST (not all, but most) people take up bass to a) play the music they love listening to and b) form a band with some mates. (Despite bass being the greatest solo instrument on God’s green earth, those are the primary reasons people play it 🙂 )

I think it’s fairly obvious to anyone who stops to think about it that there’s no set path to aims as nebulous as ‘playing the music you love’ – what is the music you love? any stylistic boundaries? Any desire to put your own spin on it? At what point does writing your own music become important in the journey?

There are a million questions that can be asked, and the answers are different for every single person. Sadly, this wasn’t taken into consideration when most of the bass teaching materials I’ve ever come across were prepared – the old model of taking the student through a set course, as though this was the repertoire they’d need, is still the way that instruments are taught in our ‘post-repertoire age’.

I’ve never liked the idea of graded exams, I don’t like the way it says that your ability to play a particular piece, or to sight read (whether or not your area of musical interest requires it), or in the case of the ‘rock school’ grades, to ‘improvise’ in a style are measured against any kind of fixed criteria. It seems to fly completely in the face of what makes music special.

Most of all it ignores the fact that pop music is essentially folk music – music BY the people and FOR the people. It’s not an academic exercise, measurable metrically and verifiable by an examination board, it’s about self-expression, shared language and history, identity, culture, branding, etc. etc.

So what am I saying? That all music teaching is futile? That music colleges are a waste of time? Clearly not. What is vital though is that the skills being taught and how they are measured have to be demonstrably related to the end result.

I have a few rules for myself when teaching, and number one is that Context Is Everything. A huge part of the value of having lessons is learning how to learn – how to extract valuable principles and concepts from whatever the actual material is that’s being looked at. Whether it’s a group of notes (key/chord/scale), a rhythmic subdivision, the bassline to a song or an approach to improvising, there are lessons within the material that are found by playing with it in context. Remove the context, and the material becomes sterile.

I refer to this distinction in lessons as ‘active learning‘ and ‘passive learning‘ – passive learning is about learning the material as is, ticking a box and moving on. ‘active learning’ looks at what’s there and says ‘what can I deduce from this? What does this tell me about the way music works? what does this tell me about the style I’m exploring? What does this give me in terms of skills needed to write and perform my own music?’

Those are things that are incredibly hard to map out as a mark-scheme for an exam. Incredibly hard, but not impossible. It just relies on the exam board recognising the value in the musical relationship between teacher and student, the shared journey towards the student playing the music they love, and being able to express the music they hear in their head.

How we start to break down those aims is part 2…

Feel free to post your own experiences – good and bad – with music education, in the comments!

email disasters

So our internets at home is down. Currently jacking wireless from some thankfully un-security-conscious neighbour, while I delete 150 THOUSAND (YES, THOUSAND) emails off my server. Some spamming bastard has cloned at least one of my domain names, and I’ve got 150,000 replies. Brought my email server to its knees, not surprisingly.

I’m going to have to make some serious changes to my email set-up to stop this from happening again. So if you’re using any email address for me that doesn’t begin ‘steve@’ it’s quite possibly not going to work in the near future… worth changing it now…

Normal service should be resumed, after I’ve wasted an entire day sorting this crap out. At least I’m playing some bass while I do it…

Design Museum gig last friday…

About two weeks ago, I got an email from electronic drum-monkey extraordinaire, Andrew Booker, asking me to do a gig with his improv collective Improvizone, at the design museum. This appealed on a few different levels – firstly, Andrew’s a fantastic musician and top bloke. Note that the first time I saw Andrew live, I was stood next to Brian Eno who’s comment on Andrew’s playing was ‘have you got his phone number?’… yup, he’s fab. Secondly, I’ve been reading about Improvizone for a long time on his blog, and love the idea – it’s quite Recycle Collective-ish in its concept, but tends to be a little more electronica-led and not quite as structurally defined [Recycle gigs are always 3 sets, 3 musicians, 3 lots of solo/duo/trio performance].

I then find out that while the gig doesn’t pay (I knew that, no problem), the event we were playin at was a ticketed thing, with peoples paying money to be there… uh-oh. That’s not so great: I’m working on a ‘creative commons’ type manifesto for these kind of gigs (more on the blog soon), and that clearly went against that idea – offering my music free to soundtrack someone else’s money-making didn’t sound good at all… Quick chat with Andrew, and it seems there’s some expenses available, so not completely free and that, combined with the enticement of great people to play with and some connections at the venue for further gigs makes me stick with the gig.

I’m rather glad I did, as it was musically a hugely satisfying experience – the line-up was completed by laptop twiddler Os, who, as well as triggering and manipulating samples of guitarist Michael Bearpark (some great sounds there!), would be processing and looping me, in Ableton Live.

Now, after a chat a few years ago with David Torn about group loop-infected improv, I generally take Torn’s view that it makes most sense to have a ‘master looper’ in a band, and have them take the most responsibility for that side of things. This doesn’t preclude other looping, it’s just like having a producer on a record… the Recycle Collective usually works like this, even with all the other musicians looping and processing up a storm…

The nice thing about Os looping me is that a) he’s very experienced with looping ideas b) he had headphones available for previewing stuff rather than just randomly processing things that may or may not work and c) Ableton Live is a pretty versatile platform on which to loop things.

So the upshot was that I played less than usual, often tossed a bassline and some ambience in Os’ direction at the beginning of a tune and then had him grabbing snippets of melody as we went on. If I was playing a ‘normal’ bassline, he’d quite often tell me he’d grabbed that, and I could move on and do all kinds of interesting Looperlative mangling of my own, while he looped and processed what was coming out… All kinds of fun. And his Ableton set up was sending a click track to Andrew on drums…

All lots of fun, and it made for some fabulous, enjoyable, freewheeling and at times downright funky improv!

And, what’s more, the venue loved it, and want us back. We’ll have to negotiate on money, clearly, as their expectations may well be tainted by the ‘freeness’ of the first gig, but they know what we do, how well it works in that setting so we have known skillz to bargain with. Hurrah!

And, once again, I’ve got another gallery show experience to throw into the pot for the new album ideas, to combine with all the twisted country stuff that came from the Rob Pepper Gallery show… twisted country electronica, anyone?

Finding inspiration – improvisation on a theme.

Last Thursday, I had a hugely enjoyable gig, playing at an art exhibition opening, of drawings by Rob Pepper. Rob is someone I’ve known for a while, and I really like his style and approach (you can check out a load of his work on his blog at dailydrawingdiary.com).

This latest exhibition at the SW1 Gallery in Victoria, titled ‘To There And Back Again”, is of drawings Rob did in Texas and in London. The London ones are mainly large canvas works of London Landmarks and views, while the Texan ones are a mixture of the large and some smaller more intimate portraits. Both sets have an off-kilter sensibility to them that says something way more about the subjects than a straight realist portrait might have.

Anyway, from a musical point of view, the discussions beforehand with Rob were really interesting. His first instinct was to suggest some kind of literalist mashup of England and Texan themes – banjos and folk songs, country music with east end cockney songs… So we talked a little around the theme, and he seemed more settled with me understanding what he wanted but filtering it through what I do…

The SW1 gallery is a fantastically resonant space – all hard surfaces and wood floors, so I only needed my studio monitors to play through. Stylistically, I drew quite heavily on Bill Frisell’s art-inspired music – where he used Jim Woodring and Gary Larson’s art for different pieces – and also on the feel of Rob Jackson’s mashup up of Americana and a more reserved English feel.

Those influences were then filtered through the strangeness of some of Rob’s drawings and blended into that thing I do – looped ‘n’ layered lush mellow bass stuff. Lots of slow swing country rhythms and chord progressions, overlaid with the kind of ambient shimmer that works so well in galleries and twisted just enough to reflect something of that quirkiness in the art.

The result was almost 2 hours of music that was at once very obviously ‘me’ music, but had taken on a whole other slant as a result of the focus that the gallery gave me.

It’s a worthwhile experiment, whether or not you’ve got a gallery opening to play at – just being able to get away from focussing on yourself as the centre of a project, and see how your skill set and musical vision can be applied to soundtracking and contextualising someone else’s work/world. The combination of the two can be a great launch pad for new ideas, and it also shows up the elements in what you do that are just there because you always do them – there were a lot of the usual StevieSounds that didn’t make it into the music for the show just because they didn’t fit the vibe. I played way more fretted bass than I normally would (fretless bass is neither a particularly ‘country’ sound, nor intrinsically english) and used the fretless in ways I wouldn’t normally, or to give a degree of obfuscation to a particular idea (looping and layering ‘dueling banjos’ on fretless, in a minor key, for example… OK, so Deliverance was set in Georgia, not Texas, but it still worked 😉 )

Anyway, the lesson is, sometimes is good to mix it up a bit, focus your skills and soundworld on someone else’s challenge. I got loads from it musically, and Rob was delighted. (The bit in the middle when I took a break and they put a CD on felt really odd following on from an hour of music shaped by the room and the art…)

Go! Experiment! …and go and see Rob’s show too –

Friday 9 May – Thursday 29 May 2008
Opening hours: Tues – Sat 10am – 4pm
020 7963 4024
www.sw1gallery.co.uk