A few thoughts on Steve Albini and Steely Dan

(for those catching up, legendary punk producer Steve Albini died suddenly last week. One of the stories that’s been recirculating is a tweet thread he posted about how much he hates Steely Dan).

Here’s the thing. It matters not one bit whether you agree with Albini or not about Steely Dan. All artists need to have strongly held opinions about art. Sharing them is generally a bad idea. I imagine that for Steve his right to share his unfiltered thoughts on his Twitter feed comes from a commitment of radical autonomy – he didn’t say it (as far as I’m aware) in an interview, just a thread on his own Twitter feed. Read it if you like, respond if you like, argue if you like. He didn’t seem to be one to try and control how people responded to his thoughts ever.

Anyway, the thing about you having those big opinions is that they are absolutely vital to you understanding what you want to do and how you want to do it, and are of zero relevance to anyone else. Because the value of them is in you being able to refine your own work in response to things in other people’s work that don’t reflect what you want from art. They will show up in your work in obvious ways. No-one ever listened to In Utero and thought ‘wow, there’s a lot of Gaucho in here’.

I have LOADS of these. There are a ton of sacred cow bands that I have zero interest in, there are things that a large majority of bassists do that I have absolutely no time for. There are creative choices that some people make that leave me scratching my head. But I very rarely tell anyone, for three main reasons:

1) there’s no way that my opinion should impact the work of anyone who isn’t paying me to impact their work with my opinions. If someone values what I do and how I work, and wants me to contribute to their work, then it’s only right and proper that I comment on their work – that’s what I do as a teacher, producer, arranger and friend. But for me to take something that someone has put into the world and then to declare it good or bad, successful or a failure isn’t something they need in their lives. My own place of peace comes from knowing I’m not their target market. This isn’t FOR me, that’s why I don’t like it. If I haven’t spent the time to find out WHY they did a thing, bitching publicly about it’s impact on me helps no-one.

2) I have students whose taste would be greatly impacted by my bold declarations of what I do and don’t like. I don’t want to shit on their favourite bands, because it won’t help them to learn to judge things in a meaningful way for their own art. (There are definitely exceptions to this, where I’ve dissed a massive band or two for comic relief – but even then, I’ve ended up with people who were sod-all to do with the conversation getting all bent out of shape because I shat on a band they like… Yup, I should have kept quiet. My bad). If someone I respected came along and told 18 year old me that the bands I liked were shit, whether or not I later decided they were, it wouldn’t helped me refine my taste and my musical vision, I would have just felt shame. And no-one should ever feel shamed for their music taste. Ever.

3) Just because I wouldn’t do something doesn’t mean someone else shouldn’t. Those bass-things that loads of people do are never things I’d tell anyone else not to do. Some of them are things I’m happy to teach students about. But they aren’t me and don’t have my goals, and those techniques and ideas are clearly serving their vision. Me not liking them is a really useful thing for me to spend time with, and I’m SOOOO grateful that I never spent a bunch of time learning the same shit as loads of other players only to find that I didn’t like it anyway. But that usefulness to me is not the same as usefulness to anyone else. So I refine my own vision and find clarity in what appears to be lacking in other people’s work.

Albini hates Steely Dan for a bunch of reasons that are screamingly obvious if you’ve ever heard literally anything he made. It’s absolutely fine to love Surfer Rosa and Aja – there’s nothing radically broadminded about being into music from different genres. Agreeing or disagreeing with Steve Albini about polished 70s jazz-rock isn’t a useful public statement or opinion, but it may be REALLY helpful to you to understand what you love and what you need to do to incorporate those things into your own playing. I’m indebted to Chuck Rainey and to Kim Deal, to Steve Albini and Donald Fagen. One of the hugely celebrated bands that I’m most ambivalent about are a MASSIVE influence on so many of my favourite artists. I’m not wrong and neither are they. It’s just how we find out what matters to us and how to pursue it.

Listen, Judge, Strategise, but maybe keep it to yourself 😉❤

Why Gatekeeping What Bass Players Do Sucks Pt 1.

This is a post I put on Facebook (with a couple of clarifications) – crossposted here cos I want to write more about the subject in the next few days and needed continuity…


a ridiculous pie chart trying to tell bass players what they need to do in a band. Bass kids, seen this meme? It’s bullshit. Pure nonsense. Here’s why.

The role of the bass player in YOUR band is entirely a matter for your band. Literally no-one else. If you choose to hand those decisions over to someone else (producer or manager, for example)that’s your choice, and I hope the economics and creative gains from doing that work out for you, but there is no ‘the role’ here. There are styles in which you are expected to play a certain way. That’s not ‘a band’. It’s a style and it’s an expectation that can be broken to create interest. There are contexts in which there are fairly safe assumptions that can be made about what is and isn’t appropriate to the context. That’s not ‘a band’. It’s a context and what’s great in that context is almost always up for negotiation.

This idea that bassists doing anything other than providing ‘the foundation’ or whatever is somehow transgressive, somehow undermining of our ‘role’ is all made up. It’s an invention of people who feel the need to gatekeep the instrument in a way that no other instrument comes close to. Sure drummers get a hard time for soloing and guitarists get stick for soloing for too long, but nothing compares to the weight of expectation dumped on bassists from those who supposedly have more experience and are trying to impart useful knowledge.

Here’s some useful knowledge. Play music that you love listening to. Not music you love playing, music you love listening to. [by this I don’t mean ‘just play covers’, I mean make music that appeals to your ears not just your hands. Music that sounds great to you, whether or not it feels fun to play] If your enjoyment comes from making great music, you’ll find yourself automatically playing in a way that pursues that. You’ll find yourself drawn to practice ideas and gear talk and contexts in which ‘making great music’ is the aim. If you’re drawn to play things that are fun to play over all over criteria, there’s a strong chance you’ll end up at odds with what the rest of the musicians you’re working with want to do. And you’ll struggle to find your tribe, because you’ll be hoping for a context in which your needs are met without considering anyone elses, and without the shared goal of making something amazing.

It’s why I never go to jam sessions – no shade on people who enjoy them [seriously, I’m not anti-jam sessions at all, they just aren’t what I look for from music], but it’s never been a context in which I’ve found a shared desire to make something amazing. It’s more about the fun of playing. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s also not a parallel goal to making amazing music. They can definitely intersect – I really, really enjoy playing solo or playing improvised collaborative gigs but my aim is always to make meaning, not just have fun wiggling my fingers.

Do what you want to do in your band to make the best music you can, and don’t let anyone who isn’t either giving you money for your skill, or being paid by you for their expertise, tell you what is and isn’t ‘the job’ of any musician in the band.

Almost every great movement in music happened because someone started fucking with ‘the rules’ in order to make great music. A ton of other people then made great music in that new space. You can carve out space or you can inhabit space, there’s no shame in just doing a thing that’s been done before and doing it really, really well. Just do it because you want to do it.

Play intentionally, deliberately, and make the best music you can. You, your audience and the world you inhabit deserve it.

Why I Only Teach Bass On Zoom

I first taught one-on-one lessons online in the late 2000s. Skype wasn’t really up to the task, but a handful of people were interested in getting some lessons for whom me being thousands of miles away made in person lessons impossible.

[jump straight to bass lesson info]

I still did mainly in person lessons through most of the 2010s, gaining more online students as the decade went on.

screen shot of Steve Lawson teaching bass on Zoom. He is holding a 6 string bass and looking down at the neckHeading into the COVID lockdown and everything moved online. I wrote tutorials for other teachers and performers in how to set up for streaming lessons and gigs, and got on with moving all my bass teaching online.

Recently a few people in the UK have asked about in person lessons, and were surprised when I said I only teach online these days. So I thought I’d better explain why.

The main reason is that my entire approach to teaching has adapted to suit being video’d, so that every lesson is viewable by the student as many times as they want after. It’s odd given how many video’d lessons by tuition sites actually end up following many of the conventions of in person masterclasses, but what video allows me to do is demonstrate an idea enough so that the student can rewatch the demo, rather than playing it enough to be able to remember it clearly until the next time they pick up a bass. This allows me to fit many, many times more material into a single lesson. Which in turn allows students to pick and choose what to work on.

screen shot of Steve Lawson teaching bass on Zoom - he is holding up the neck of a four string bass to show the viewer a particular chord shapeI am adamant that it is not my job to decide the exact path every student should go on. My students are almost exclusively grown-ass adults with a lifetime’s experience as music listeners, and generally some familiarity with the instrument (I love teaching total beginners, but it doesn’t happen very often). My task is to equip them to play the music that inspires and motivates them, to plot a journey towards their own creative aspirations and intentions. For some of them that’s playing bass in a band in a particular genre. For others it’s about broadening their general skill set regarding navigating the fretboard in terms of keys and melodic/intervallic patterns. For some it’s developing a practice towards building a vocabulary for improvisation, and still others it’s playing solo. I don’t decide what they should want to do, I just give them the tools to get there. And in any given week, I give them WAY more tools than they need, because I can, and because while rewatching the video there might be one section that really connects with them that they can watch over and over again and really dig into. They also have a document of their own playing that can be really useful for reflective and reflexive assessment of where they are up to.

Every lesson begins with me asking ‘what have you been playing this week?’ The answer to that doesn’t have to be related to the previous week, but more often than not it’ll be the development of something we were looking at in that lesson. Video really helps people diagnose their own weaknesses and areas for development, so I find students are way, way better at going ‘ah, I was really struggling with that aspect, so I spent a week on that’ – and ‘that aspect’ might not have actually been the topic of the previous lesson, just some technical or theoretical hurdle that needed to be surmounted to get there.

I’m finding that students progress faster on Zoom. A LOT faster. Their practice through the week is way more focused with the recall the video allows, and their path is way more refined towards their evolving creative goals.

So if that sounds good, drop me a line and we’ll get something booked in. All the deets are Here on the teaching page.

How to get set up for Bass Lessons on Zoom

I’ve been teaching online now for about 15 years. I started out with Skype and have used all kinds of other video conferencing tools in between. The standard now, post-pandemic, is Zoom. (click here to book a lesson)

The problem with Zoom is also it’s great strength for conversation – it’s very good at filtering out sounds that are not human voices. For bass players having lessons online, this is a big problem.

Fortunately, they also include some options for getting better fidelity with an instrument. So here are a few things that are worth sorting out if you want the best experience of having a bass lesson on Zoom.

  • firstly, don’t try and use speakers. It is technically possible to have your amp behind you and use the built in mic while you listen on speakers, but Zoom’s echo and background noise cancellation will make the bass sound choppy if it can be heard at all. So your first requirement is to be on headphones.
  • secondly, an external soundcard is a must. This allows you to attach a microphone for talking and plug your bass in directly and then balance them to each other. if you’re buying one just for this, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a great place to start.
  • thirdly, make sure the settings are right. Here’s a screen shot of the settings I have in the audio section of Zoom:

screenshot of the zoom audio settings page, indicating that a soundcard has been chosen, high fidelity music sound for musicians is on and echo cancellation is off

screen shot of the audio settings screen in Zoom

  • notice I have my soundcard (K-mix) chosen for in and out, I’m not letting it automatically adjust my level, background noise removal is off, original sound for musicians and hi-fi mode plus stereo audio, are on. I’ve also turned off echo cancelation as it’s not needed if you’re on headphones.
  • Make sure there is enough of your bass signal reaching zoom – try it out before your lesson with a friend and check that you’re getting close to the top but not peaking. If you have pedals and effects, put those before it.
  • (added this a day late!) An external camera with a wider field of vision may be really helpful in getting your whole bass into the frame! I spent a long time teaching and filming with either the camera built into my Macbook or a Logitech one that was quite narrow, and it was always a compromise of either bass or face in the shot! I now have a Zoom Q2n 4K and it’s perfect for this. A super-niche hack that I use when I’m travelling is to use the mic on the Zoom as my vocal mic by running a cable from the headphone out to my K-Mix soundcard, so I can still have the direct signal from my bass but use the surprisingly high quality mics in the Zoom for talking.

If you follow these steps it should work well – make sure you have the latest version of Zoom installed, as older versions didn’t have all of these settings.

if you want to book bass lessons, see my teaching page by clicking here.

Nine Years Of My Bandcamp Subscription

Today is the NINTH anniversary of the launch of my Bandcamp Subscription. It has become a lifeline, the mechanism by which I not only fund and release music, but the context in which I get to make the specific kind of music I make, and where I get to talk about it and hear what it means to the subscriber community.

Facebook post announcing the launch of my bandcamp subscription nine years ago todayBandcamp’s subscription offering launched to the public about 8 years ago, but four artists got to trial it for a year before it went public to iron out kinks and see which features worked best. I’d already been talking to Ethan about it for a couple of years at that point – we would meet up every January while I was at NAMM and he’d ask me what worked best for me with Bandcamp and what I’d like to see – prior to the subscription offering, I imagine that most of the things that I wanted that ended up as features were things where my desire just confirmed what they were already working on, but I got to have input into the subscription idea at the ground level, and as such, as this point it’s about 80% of my perfect platform. That’s a pretty amazing percentage for a non-bespoke platform, especially one that has to meet the diverse needs of artists and labels from all over the planet.

So what’s the value of the subscription, for me and the listener? I’m acutely aware that thanks to this model, collectively the subscribers know more about what I’m up to than I do – the sheer volume of music there means that I can’t keep in mind what it all is and what I’ve done before. I’m often too busy just being me and doing me-stuff to step back from it and see what it might mean. I also have a singular take on the impact of things like adding in percussion samples and field recordings to the aesthetic, or a set of assumptions around how much music would be too much music. But across the community there are people who have specific connections with loads of the albums, who came into my orbit at a particular time and the first album they found means something special to them. They are music makers who have a particular take on the significance (or annoyance!) of aspects of what I do, and a significant number of them have been around for two decades and have a deep and enduring sense of how this life in music has evolved. There are people who devour every album and listen to it multiple times, who are deeply grateful that they aren’t expected to pay £8 for every album, even though a handful of them probably would. And there are people who love the music of a particular era in my music-life and listen mostly to that but subscribe to support me because it’s less than £3 a month and they just want to help me carry on doing what I do…

It is still, by far, the best way to access my music, to become a part of its meaning and purpose. Every album is more like an episode in a story or podcast than it is a ‘product’ to be marketed and promoted. The way its released means that the invitation is there to comment, review, discuss, question and delve into the meaning of the music and even to dig into why I made certain decisions that meant particular albums don’t work for you. Those conversations are often the most mindblowing – imagine getting to talk about the confusion that a particular album conjures with someone who has already happily paid for it to exist long before it was conceived. The difference between that and the ‘apologetics’ that one indulges in when releasing a public album that deviates from the expectations of a fanbase is night and day.

I’m grateful to every single person who has been part of that community, whether they subscribed for a year and then (quite understandably!) thought ‘that’s quite enough Steve Lawson music for one lifetime‘, or have been there since day one (shout out to JP Rangaswami, Phil Thomas and Mike K Smith for being the longest standing subscribers, still there from day one. ♥️)

If you want to join us, that would be amazing. If you want to rejoin, that would also be a truly beautiful thing. The link to subscribe will be in the comments. And I’ll do a Bandcamp Listening Party for the latest subscriber album on Friday. More news on that ASAP. 🙂

Later on, I’ll do a bit of a dive into the economics, but suffice to say, the subscription was what sustained me through Cancer, it regularly pays the rent, it has rescued me from tax bills I’d foolishly not accounted for, and it turns every break-even gig into a recording session of deep and enduring value.

Steve Lawson’s Basstopian Merchtropolis

Have I ever written anything here about my merch store? Probably not. My bad.

Anyway, here it is – t-shirts, mugs and caps, all printed on demand, available in a bunch of different colours. Give your wardrobe a refresh 😉

How To Find Music On Bandcamp

It’s Bandcamp Friday – the day each month when Bandcamp gives their share of the profits to the artists. This started as a response to the pandemic and continued in recognition of the ongoing impact on the music economy of that global shutdown and the escalating cost of living crisis. Regardless of everything else that’s happened at Bandcamp since, it’s been an absolutely transformative response to the financial hardship of independent musicians, funnelling hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of musicians.
photo of Steve Lawson holding a headless 6 string bass guitar, sat on the curb with a wall behind him.
So, following this week’s viral discussion about how tough it is to maintain a living as an independent musician in a streaming-dominated economy, the invitation is there to go and investigate Bandcamp. A lot of artists do discount codes for Bandcamp Friday. Those are worth looking for so we can all meet in the middle. Other music is already way cheaper than you might imagine while still being an essential part of the economic viability of the band or artist you’re helping to support. It’ll take some time, but bridging the disconnect between ‘there’s no good music any more’ and the realisation that you don’t forage for music the way you used to is a helpful place to start.
A few ways to find music on Bandcamp, from someone who spent their teens and 20s basically living in record shops:
1. Search: if you like any music that’s associated with indie labels already, you might be surprised at what’s already on there. from Tom Waits to Peter Gabriel, Al Green to Charlotte Church, PJ Harvey to The Smile, there’s a bunch of big names on there. If you’re into metal or hip hop, it’s a veritable box of delights.
2. Tags: within the search side of Bandcamp is not just looking for artist names but a tagging system. Genres, instruments, places, associated artists, emotions, all kinds of stuff gets tagged and you can narrow down your search for new music that way.
3. Listener collections : you can start with mine, linked below, but any of the little squares below an album indicating who has bought it links to someone’s Bandcamp fan page – there you’ll get to browse the virtual record collection of anyone on the site. See what people who like what you like also like. Forage for things with interesting artwork. Click follow and you’ll start getting emails with what they’ve bought in them.
4: Artist recommendations: Every artist page, if the artist has bothered to fill in the bit on their profile, has recommended albums. Find out what the people you listen to listen to. I am regularly found by that mechanism, and am HUGELY grateful to everyone who recommends an album of mine on there.
5. Subscriptions (of course I was going to say this) – Subscribing to an artist or label can get you a whole ton of diverse music for way less money per album. Economically it’s a really good mid point between single album sales and the financial wasteland of Spotify. The value proposition varies, depending on whether the artist or label in question sees it as a thing to extract maximum value from super-fans or build a broader community (I’m definitely in the latter group), but subscribing to a handful or artists or labels on Bandcamp is a lovely way to invest in music sustainably and get a ton of music to browse through in your own time (remember that with a Bandcamp subscription, you still keep the music if you unsubscribe, so you don’t need to rush through it all like it’s going to vanish at some indeterminate point – you can listen either on the website, in the app, or download it as lossless files in any format you desire).
6. The bandcamp website front page. Bandcamp is a discovery ecosystem. There’s a firehose of what’s being bought now that acts as a great lucky-dip. There’s Bandcamp Daily, New And Notable and a whole bunch of other ways to find music.
See it as an adventure where you get some new music, and the warm delicious feeling of the few quid you spend on music ending up in the pockets of artists who have bills to pay. In my case, it’ll go towards paying for the tooth extraction I had this morning. You buy music, I lose chemo-degraded teeth in an economically sustainable manner. 🙂

Remastered Album Series – Time Stops vols 1-3 All Reissued

album artwork for the album Time Stops Vol 1 by Steve Lawson.Having discovered an amazing plug-in by Baby Audio called Smooth Operator, I recently realised that my mix/mastering process for the last couple of years of releases was underselling a lot of the detail in the recordings. The more muted, introspective tone of the releases made some sense in the context of the Pandemic followed by a year of Cancer related shenanigans, but didn’t represent the music to its fullest extent. So I’ve set about remastering my most recent public albums first, and have now uploaded Time Stops vols 1-3 (vol 3 is Bandcamp subscriber-only).

album artwork for Time Stops vol 2 by Steve LawsonThe remasters are uploaded in place of the original albums, so if you’ve already bought the albums, you don’t need to pay for them again to get the new versions. If you downloaded them originally when you bought them or got them through the subscription, you’re most welcome to download them again and compare the two. If you make music yourself, it might be instructive to do so!

I’m so happy with how these sound, and the consensus in the Bandcamp Listening Parties for the albums was that they were more detailed with greater depth to the audio field.

The next one to be re-released is Rick, which will be uploaded this Friday before the listening party where you’ll get to preview the new version.

Head to the listening party RSVP page for more info on that!

Bandcamp Listening Parties – The New (weekly) Normal

Over the past two Fridays, I’ve been taking advantage of a new feature in Bandcamp and holding Listening Parties. The idea of a listening party is simple, in that it’s about simultaneous listening with a chat room for me to talk about the making and meaning of the music, and you to ask questions about it.

A screenshot of the Bandcamp listening party for Steve Lawson's album Time Stops, with the album artwork, sleevenotes and the chatroom discussion about the album.

In this format, it started as a Twitter thing during Lockdown hosted by Tim from the Charlatans, branded as Tim’s Twitter Listening Party. He would get members of celebrated bands to tweet along to their album, starting at a pre-announced time when everyone could join in. I followed along and contributed comments and questions to the ones for Tears For Fears’ Songs From The Big Chair and for the The’s Dusk. A whole lot of fun. Continue reading “Bandcamp Listening Parties – The New (weekly) Normal”

Bass Student Testimonials Pt 2 And Some Thoughts On One to One Bass Lessons.

I really should pay more attention to my website, right? Anyway, here’s the 2nd in a series of student testimonials.

A picture of Steve Lawson's hands playing a 6 string bass. He is using his fretting hand thumb to extend the chord shapeBut first a couple of thoughts on why one to one lessons are the right choice for many musicians. Coming out of the summer and re-entering the academic year, a lot of people find themselves starting to think about their music learning and what can take it to the next level.

There are a LOT of courses online, that offer top quality content and instruction via video lessons and downloadable materials. I’ve created courses like that with Scotts Bass Lessons and I do monthly bass masterclasses for Musical-U, so I’m in no way opposed to that model.

But I have realised over the years that my own gift is in helping individuals or in-person groups with specific questions, helping to guide people to where they want to be, rather than having to rummage through the stuff in a pre-recorded course and find the right theme. There’s a built in dialectic of specificness and genericness to those course – they are specific in as much as each course or module can be targeted to a particular area of playing, but equally generic in that they are a course made for everyone. And not everyone learning style is the same.

So, if you want some one-to-one lessons, they probably cos less than you think and we can start working on the specifics of your own musical journey.

Here’s a testimonial from bassist Steve Whitehouse, who I’ve been teaching weekly for a number of years:

“I’ve had the privilege of being a student of Steve Lawson’s for over two years now. I’ve been playing musical instruments for 45 years and have been lucky enough to have a wide selection of excellent teachers both contemporary and classical. Steve however is on another level altogether. What really sets Steve apart is his ability to teach *music* itself, not just how to play bass. He lives inside music and has levels of understanding I’ve never encountered elsewhere, enhanced by his encyclopaedic knowledge of players and styles. Lessons with Steve have been an absolute game changer for me, opening new horizons and pulling me out of a creative rut and much of what he’s taught me is applicable not only to the bass, but to my other instruments as well. If you are in a creative hole, Steve’s the guy to help you find your path.”

Testimonial Pt 1 can be found here.

Click here for details on lessons and to contact me and book something in.

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