Some thoughts on 'Free' methodology and practice…

It’s the big buzz-concept in the online world – the new currency is attention, recorded music can be duplicated at zero cost, so we should all give it away in order to promote ourselves as a brand, and the caveat often added to this is that we make our money off live shows.

OK, let’s contrast this with a distinction I’ve pointed out quite a few times over the years between bands from the US and bands from the UK. As a general rule (and there are exceptions on both sides, but it pretty much stands) American bands are ‘better’ live, while British bands are more creative in the studio. The reason for this is one of necessity and scale: the live circuit in the US means that you could quite easily play 250 nights a year and not repeat yourself for a couple of years. It’s quite possible for a coffee-shop-sized artist to literally ‘live on the road’ – if you want to know more about that, I seriously advise that you get Seth Horan’s ‘Between Two Oceans’ DVD – this isn’t a slick presentation about how touring works. It’s a fly on the wall look at actual life on the road. Some of it’s funny, some of it’s silly, some of it looks like proper fun, some of it looks like purile nonsense. All wrapped around Seth’s fantastic music…

The thing with Seth’s DVD is that it looks like some kind of weird fairy tale from this side of the Atlantic. Here’s why. if you are gigging in the UK alone, VERY few bands ever get to do more than 30 or so gigs a year. I asked a Live Nation employee recently about the bands they promote here, and who is doing more shows than that. Off the top of her head, the only name she could think of was Status Quo. Not one ‘new’ artist.

So, unless you’re clearing at least £500 a night as a solo artist, you aren’t going to be making a living out of gigs. The musicians I know who make sensible money playing live music in the UK are playing weddings, jazz or are in tribute bands.

So, giving away your recorded music as a way of getting more gigs makes far less sense in the UK than it does in the US. A lot of British bands get signed without having played even 15 or 20 gigs together. The standard model was to put together a band, play a few local shows, then try and get a ‘showcase’ at some shitty venue in Camden in order to ‘get signed’. (If you see footage of really early Coldplay, Stone Roses or Travis TV appearances, you’ll see what happens when a band doesn’t do the road work… painful…)

One possible answer to this is ‘well, tour abroad then!’ – which is a great suggestion, and one that some artists are able to take up. Sadly, the cost of being on the road away from home is ramped up that much higher than if you’re near friends and family that will put you up, so the chances of you making money at it are negligible. In fact, what you need in order to make money abroad are merch sales… including CDs…

As for UK artists touring in the US, that costs a HECK of a lot of money. Seriously big money. You need a major following at home, or a US record label to make it work, or to do what I do, which is to only do things that are sponsored by a European company and not get paid for gigs, but for ‘demos’ and trade shows like NAMM or bass-day events. That’s not an option for ‘bands’ or people who don’t have those kind of relationships with gear companies…

________________________________________

OK, that said, what’s the value of ‘free’ for us then, given that we need to make some money off this. A few observations on the current trends in ‘free’ music:

  • Radiohead didn’t ‘give away their album for free’: no, what they did was use a low-ish resolution copy of most of the tracks from the album as a way of generating MASSIVE publicity for a normal CD release, but also monetized their obsessional fan-base by selling vinyl to people who don’t even own record players. They used the leverage they had from already being one of the world’s most successful bands to create MILLIONS of pounds worth of column inches and airtime in every conceivable media channel. The amount of money they ‘made’ from their venture HAS to have factored in the amount of money they SAVED that they would normally have spent on advertising, and the amount over and above any ad campaign they could ever afford that they got from the stunt.
  • Ditto Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor putting out an instrumental album is not a particularly ‘newsworthy’ event. Trent Reznor ‘reinventing the way bands market and sell their product’ is. The fact that it was a 5 album set of instrumental stuff is neither here nor there. Just like Radiohead, Trent leveraged and amplified the residual level of interest there was in him as an artist already associated with the zeitgeist, albeit one quite a few steps down the food chain from Radiohead in terms of mainstream public perception. So Trent made his own album newsworthy by coming up with a payment pyramid that again leveraged his obsessional fans’ commitment to the band by offering massively overpriced limited edition packages (back to scarcity as a selling point…) and making the price on the download so cheap that the teaser ‘free’ bit of it drew people in.
  • Both bands got huge exposure, but still relied on it being any good for word of mouth to sustain it or for the success of the record to spill over into live success – Neither made a loss on the music in order to promote gigs: I think in the final analysis, both bands will have made more money from these ‘upscaling’ adventures in progressive scarcity than in any previous album… but that’s a guess. We’ll see when the stats come in.
  • The bit of this that can be drawn out for a starting artist to use is the pyramid –
    • at the bottom is freely downloadable lower resolution partial release/live set/older material/live video compilation etc. that provides the curious with something that gets them involved in what you do. It gets clicking, it demands time and means they’re more likely to stay than click away.
    • Next up is ad-supported listening – napster/last.fm/rhapsody/reverb nation – you get a coupla cents for each play, but often they’ll show up on playlists or in tag clouds and you’ll reach people who might never have heard of you that way…
    • From there we have low priced download albums – higher res than the freebies, easy to get (either from your own site or via iTunes/eMusic/CDbaby/Amazon – those are the big four) and coming with extra tracks not in the free version, sleeve notes, photos, printable artwork etc… drawing people in…
    • Next up from there is CDs – the old faithful. Audiences still want something to take home! The value of CDs at gigs is massive. Feel free to do USB sticks/MP3 players/DVD discs/whatever as well, but good old fashioned CDs might be declining, but for the next few years, you’re going to make more money on gigs if you’ve got something physical to sell. A lot more if they’re any good!
    • Then we’re into the tip of the pyramid and what goes on here depends on your audience. Some possible options – 24bit audiophile downloads :: CD/tshirt/poster packages :: CD/DVD double packs :: boxed-sets of your entire catalogue :: street-team-only dinners :: fanclub only gigs :: weird freebies (food, stickers, domestic items relating to the name of the band or the artwork etc.) :: instructional material :: remixable files :: anything personalised…

Free is all about attention. Making product available for free is utterly VITAL in the current climate. However, there HAS to be a degree of subtlety and nuance in how it is applied, how you make it work, how you reach your audience, and how you move them on from the ‘gateway drug’ of free low-res MP3s to Class A merch-buying.

And on that note, you need some free stuff, so go Here and Here to download over 2 hours of free fabulous music!. Go on, you know you want to…

And if you’ve already done that and want some more, there’s The webshop here for CDs and other downloads. :o)

How to 'Stumble' without the Stumble Upon toolbar.

Right, I’ve just made a ‘stumble this!’ toolbar link, for those of you that want to stumble stuff but don’t want to use Firefox or IE to get the stumbleupon tool bar –

Stumble This! – drag this link to your toolbar and you should be, as the americans say ‘Good to go’.

Please experiment with it by first logging into Stumble Upon, then coming back and stumbling a few of my blog pages. You can do this anyway without my wikkid new stumble button by clicking the Stumble Upon icon at the bottom of any post –

But this trick means you can stumble anything, from any browswer, not just by using embedded buttons or the SU toolbar – try it, it’s fab! (obviously, again, you have to be logged into Stumble Upon for it to work… oh, and don’t forget to marvel at my wikkid javascript skillz… :o)

Bruce Cockburn interview from Nov '99

Back when I was writing for Bassist magazine in the late 90s, I mainly used interviews as a chance to meet up with my musical heroes. The bass ones were easy to sort out, but on a couple of occasions I used the magazine connection to interview my guitar playing heroes as well, and did this interview for Guitarist magazine. Given that Bruce Cockburn is my favourite musician of all time, and probably the songwriter whose songs have had the most real-world impact on my day to day life, it was always going to be a little hagiographic, but I think I’ve kept the ‘you’re amazing, tell me about being amazing’ type questions to a minimum.

This is my original transcript of the interview, which is a fair bit longer than what actually got printed, I seem to remember. It was just after Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu had come out, and was conducted in the restaurant of some hotel in Ealing, I think. Bruce was a fantastic interviewee, and this is one of my favourite interviews to read back. A couple of my questions are a little crassly put, but it was 9 years ago, so I’ll cut myself some slack. I’ve met him a few times since, and he’s always been a very friendly, funny person to meet…

Bruce Cockburn Interview
(Reproduced from the November 99 issue of Guitarist Magazine)

Impossible to pigeon-hole, but equally brilliant whether finger-picking ragtime instrumentals or giving it what-for on a distorted electric, Bruce Cockburn’s artistry continues to climb 30 years into his career.

Once described by Melody Maker as ‘Canada’s best kept secret’, singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn has, over the course of 25 albums, built up a substantial following world-wide and is a bit of a superstar in his native Canada. He’s had 20 gold and platinum records, won 10 Junos (the Canadian version of Grammies), and does seriously big tours, but remains a cult act in the UK (albeit a cult act capable of playing the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank last time he visited these shores!)

Bruce’s body of work ranges from lilting country folk to the dark brooding punk and reggae influenced political ranting of his eighties albums. His recent move to the Rykodisc label has been accompanied by a shift back to the jazzier acoustic sound of his late seventies albums. Always focused, Bruce is one of very few singer/songwriters to last 30 years with no embarrassing period whatsoever.

Initially inspired by Scotty Moore and Buddy Holly, followed soon after by Chet Atkins and Les Paul, his guitar playing encompasses a huge range of styles, taking in ragtime and blues influences but combining them with jazz, country, rock and avant-garde in a unique melange that perfectly supports his heart-felt prose.

– When did you start playing

I started playing when I was 14 which was 1959.

– Why?

Scott Moore – the early Elvis records. Buddy Holly… well, the sound of the Crickets – I didn’t really associate it with particular people it was just music. That’s what got me excited about music. I started taking guitar lessons at the age of 14 and was very quickly introduced to other kinds of music. The teacher I had was into country swing like Les Paul and Chet Atkins, and all the tunes that were on Willy Nelson’s ‘Stardust’ album were the tunes that I learned to read music on the guitar with, to learn chords and all that stuff. The first tune I can remember actually working out off a record was ‘Walk Don’t Run’ by the Ventures. It just kinda moved on from there – I got interested in jazz pretty quickly, and through that moved into folk-blues. By the time I got out of high school I was doing some rudimentary finger-picking and was starting to compose music, and dabbled in writing poetry. I went to Berkley for three semesters out of a four year course, and did what all honourable Berkley students that are any good do – drop out! Last year they gave me an honorary Doctorate so I finally got my degree. When I was at Berkley I was shown by John Lennon and Bob Dylan that you could actually put poetry and music together and make something.

– So Dylan was the catalyst?

That’s what interested me about it. I had no interest in imitating the songs I liked – old Elvis songs, ragtime tunes – those were the product of a time and place and an experience that I had no part of so it made no sense to try and write those songs. It was OK for me to sing them, that made sense, but not trying to write anything like it. But it hadn’t occurred to me that you could do anything else until Dylan came along, and it was like ‘Oh wow, you can actually say stuff.’ So I started writing songs. When I left Berkley I joined a rock ‘n’ roll band in Ottawa where I had grown up, made up of a bunch of folkies that I knew, and we all were writing songs at that point, and that’s when I really started taking it seriously. It kinda grew from there’

– So that was the beginning of the solo career?

Yeah, except I did it with my wife at the time. At first I wasn’t really on the road – we were on such a small circuit, that it didn’t qualify as on the road. There were clubs in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal that I could play and the occasional folk festival, and in the early says that’s what I did. I was in bands for the second half of the sixties but had started to do solo stuff in the latter part of the 60s. ’69 was a fairly busy year for me as a solo artist, and that’s when the first solo album was recorded. In the spring of ’70, I bought my first truck, I was started to get paid for gigs so I had some money. It cost three thousand dollars, which was a big deal at the time. And we put a camper on the back of it, and spent the next five years driving back and forth across the country, staying with my in-laws or my parents during the winter and hitting the road again as soon as it warmed up. So for 7 or 8 months out of each year we’d be on the road.

– Was there a sense of the emerging Canadian sound?

There WAS an emerging Canadian sound, but there wasn’t really a sense of it. People started thinking about it after the fact.

– It must have really pissed off the Americans.

That Canada had all the best song writers? I don’t think anyone thought about it – in those days you didn’t say you were from Canada – most Canadians were embarrassed about Canada. Most Canadians didn’t know that Joni Mitchell was Canadian, or that Neil Young was Canadian. You’d say it to people and they’d go ‘What? Nah, that’s bullshit!’ It’s like ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth???’ Same thing.

There were a lot of us around that time who thought this was a bad thing who were right behind Joni, Neil and Gordon Lightfoot, who was the first to opt to stay in Canada rather than to move to the US. It was a cliche of Canadian culture that in order to be accepted by Canadians you had to prove yourself somewhere else first – you could do it in England or the US, but not in Canada.

But there was kind of a wave of nationalism that we were all affected by at the time that said it shouldn’t be that way, so I just thought I’m going to build up whatever audience I can in Canada before I think about going anywhere else, and then we’ll see where it goes. Over the next ten years – it took about that long to build a strong national audience, but by the end of the 70s I did have that, and I was also starting to work outside of Canada, a little. But hardly in the states at all – it was Italy and Japan at first. The states did really start to get interested in me until ’83 when Stealing Fire came out, when we started to do national tours.

– Didn’t you get some adverse press for Rocket Launcher?

No, it got no adverse press, it got nothing but positive response – it blew my mind! The Religious Right to my mind said nothing about it. I got the odd letter from somebody who were disappointed in it. One woman I remembered writing saying how could I write an anti-American song like this – her husband was a jet pilot and didn’t I know what awful things the Russians were doing in Afghanistan? Well yeah I do, but it doesn’t excuse what you guys are doing in Guatemala, and it’s not your husband who’s guilty, it’s other people.

I got the occasional letter like that, but what I also got was a huge amount of air-play for that song, which I hadn’t really had before – the one exception being Wondering Where The Lions Are which got played in the US as well as Canada. WWTLA was the first song I’d had that got big time national air-play in Canada and it got on the Billboard chart in the US. But whereas it was the start of something in the Canada, in the sense that the next few records I put out also got a lot of air-play, in the States that didn’t happen, so with Rocket Launcher it was like starting all over again. And that time it did take, and it’s been progressively better since then.

– How did your music develop through the 70s?

The finger-picking that I’d learned to do was based on Mississippi John Hurt and Manse Lipscomb, mainly, and other old blues guys like that, but I’d also learned how to play more complex chords. When I went to Berkley I went majoring in composition, with guitar as my instrument and I had this notion that I’d be a jazz musician – I hadn’t thought about it one way or the other, but that seemed like the thing you do when you went to Berkley! And then I realised part way along that I wasn’t prepared to do the amount of work, and I wasn’t interested enough in jazz harmonies per se to pursue it the way they were teaching it. But I still loved jazz and continue to love jazz, and whenever there’s an opportunity jazz creeps into the music – more now than ever, partly to do with increasing command of the instrument over the years, and partly to do with exploring options as a writer.

– Did you continue to study?

I didn’t study formally in anyway – I taught myself this and that. But I listened to a lot of stuff – you mentioned the world music thing – through the late 60s and into the 70s I was listening to music of every culture that I could get my hands on. I was particularly infatuated with European Medieval and Renaissance music – you can hear that in the records. I was also listening to African records, Tibetan Ritual music. I guess I got started on that track at Berkley because a lot of the jazz players were interested in Arabic music. That interest in Eastern music was prevailing in the jazz scene at the time and I got totally captivated by it.

So the guitar style was partly having started with a blues style that featured alternating bass with a melody over the top or a droning bass with licks over the top, the melodies and the licks got more complicated, and the harmonies never were as simple as blues harmonies so. So on top of that would be a song like Joy Will Find A Way, where the guitar part is an attempt at duplicating an Ethiopian thumb harp piece that I had on a record – it’s not the same notes, but an attempt to get that feel into it. I found that a lot of African folk music suited adaptation to finger picking guitar, which wasn’t lost on the Africans either, but I hadn’t heard African guitar music then. It was obvious to me that you could take these complimentary drum and xylophone type instruments and translate that music onto the guitar, and that became part of the style and then everything I heard that I like really.

And then in the 70s I discovered Reggae and then Punk came along and revitalised rock ‘n’ roll for me and so then I started getting those elements in there to.

– Was electric guitar an anathema – with prog rock etc.?

I used it a bit – all through the 70s there was also the Stones, don’t forget, so there was goo guitar around of the sort that I related to as roots based. And there was good jazz guitar, although there was a period in there where I didn’t listen to much rock or jazz – I completely missed David Bowie, for instance, until Heroes in the late 70s, then I went back and discovered the rest of what he’d done. Then I started to look into rock music again. Yeah, I missed a lot, but I also gained something in the freedom I had from that influence at that particular time. When the influence came around it was affecting me as a more developed artist.

– So the addition of electric stuff happened around Humans, or Inner City Front…?

Inner City Front was really the big one. There’s electric guitar on many of the earlier albums, but it didn’t start to take over until I was playing with heavier bands with more drums and more emphasis on rhythm, and then it was an irresistible pressure to pick up the electric guitar – to hear myself on stage for one thing – but also to keep up in intensity with the other guys. There was a big learning process in there. on Inner City Front I got away with it, but there a lot of learning in front of people going on. I was applying the same techniques to the electric as I used on the acoustic, but there’s a big difference in touch and it took some time to kind of get the feel for it.

– Was there a parallel between the music and lyrics in that development?

The earliest album that has a real noticeable amount of electric guitar on it is Night Vision, which is also a dark kind of record and I hadn’t thought about it but I guess that’s true, it does contribute to it, though unconsciously – I must contribute to what I was doing. The choice wasn’t unconscious the connection was’

The tone of the albums really changes with Humans, which also coincides with my divorce, and the end of a decade and a point in my life that was partly triggered by the divorce and partly not where I spent a lot of time looking at how my inner being related to the big picture, the cosmic picture, and it was time to include other people in that search for an understanding of relationship. To put it in simple terms, as a christian if you’re gonna love your fellow mankind you gotta know who they are, you can’t love them in the abstract. So it was time to kind of be among humans. It started with the album humans and the songs there come from those first travels in Japan, and Italy – the first ventures outside of North America, and the greater understanding of human interaction on mass which translates into politics, and that carried through into inner city front, and all through the 80s.

– Your one of the few artists who was around in the 80s, when all the world’s singer songwriters went electric, who has no embarrassing period…

I was pretty careful, but I look back on certain of those things with a little embarrassment, but only a little – more the live gigs that the records cos there were more chances taken on stage than in the studios.

– Influences –

The Clash, Bob Marley that whole new wave thing had a broad non-specific effect but I remember thinking on Trouble With Normal, on Tropic Moon, and I could figure out how to get the right feel, so I remember thinking, ‘what would the Clash do with this?’ so I did what the Clash would’ve done with it, that was a conscious decision in the studio – it doesn’t sound very much like the Clash at all, but you can hear that mental process’ Bob Dylan was still an influence – Blood On The Tracks – he hadn’t had much of an influence on me for years and then Blood On The Tracks came out and that was a big album for me. Life in general – at that point I was starting to write life and looking outward’

– But there’s a musical sophistication that goes beyond those influences, more of a Peter Gabriel kind of vibe –

That has partly to do with the producers on that album, although I listened to a little Peter Gabriel, though I don’t think it was as much Peter Gabriel as listening to the same things that he was listening to and translating them. The producers, John Goldsmith and Kerry Crawford, who worked on World Of Wonders and Big Circumstance – their understanding of album production was bigger in scope than I was used to working with, and that’s one of the reasons why I was interested in them. So they got bigger sounds, and used more instruments and tried out more ideas, the music lent itself to that. At that point I’d been in Central America, and been to the Caribbean a bunch of times and I had more direct influence from those cultures – see how I miss you, down here tonight, world of wonders – on that song the imagery is all European, but the music is Afro-Caribbean.

– Influence of the Stick?

That had something to do with it as well. That was the thing that interested to me about the Stick. I was excited when I discovered that I knew someone who played it. With Hugh Marsh I’d explored the possibilities with Violin and Guitar, then Hugh’s brother Ferg (Fergus Jemison Marsh), turned out to be this incredible Stick player who was very Tony Levin influenced with the bass strings, but added on all this treble stuff that you don’t hear Tony Levin doing, and it seemed to me that there would be incredible textural possibilities with that part of the stick and guitar. So that became a big deal.

During the period that I was writing the material for Stealing Fire, I’d rented a little office space that I’d go to to practice and or write each day, and I had a little drum machine so I’d set up drum rhythms, and I have the lyrics and I’d be pulling at the lyric and the rhythms and that would spawn the guitar parts, and I got Ferg coming over and work on Stick parts that would go with the guitar parts, and then I’d modify the guitar parts if he had something better than I did. So the presence of the stick was in there early on in the process of building up to ‘Stealing Fire’.

– There are strong polyrhythmic possibilities with the Stick –

and then when you start adding drums to that the trick is to get people to start leaving things out because you can get so many things going at once.

– Guitars – who were you listening to?

I don’t think I was really listening to guitar players much through there. Since about 1960 I haven’t really tried to learn anything off a record in a ‘OK, how he’s doing this’ kind of way. I get influenced by the feel of things and I sort of take what my ear will grasp and then I mess with it, so the learning process has been slow, but also kind of less conspicuously influenced by any one person that it might other wise has been.

– And that helped to maintain originality?

It has had that effect, I don’t think I did it on purpose that was, it’s just my nature to do things that way. I would hear things I like, and any time I heard one I’d either find a way to do it my way or it would just become a kind of general influence – there were lots of people, Mark Knopfler was the most conspicuous fingerstyle electric player around, but I was always sort of slightly uncomfortable with that, even though I really liked his records, everyone would be telling me that I played like Mark Knopfler, once I started playing electric guitar, and it kind of was a little irritating, so I made a conscious effort where possible not to sound like Mark Knopfler – there was already one of him and we didn’t need another one.

– You started fingerpicking on the electric before Knoplfer, what lead to that? Naïvité’?

There was no question in my mind of ever picking up a pick – there was no reason to. I’d played electric guitar when I was in rock bands in the 60s, and I’d had lots of experience playing electric guitar with a pick. But through the 70s I’d developed enough facility with the guitar that it just seemed like OK now how do I apply this to this other instrument, and by the end of the 80s I’d sort of almost learned how to do it!!

– It gave you a unique sound, and a continuity between the electric and acoustic.

They’re not polls apart

– sometimes it’s pretty hard to tell which you’re playing.

yeah, depending on which guitar I’m using – the National Resophonic that I’ve got is an electric guitar but I’ve got it strung with acoustic gauge strings and it has this chunky sound that has much of the attack of an acoustic.

– What electrics were you using in the 80s?

I had a couple of Strats, and a couple of hand made flying Vs, made by Emory Deyong, in Canada. They were really nice guitars, with humbucking pickups, but I’ve always had a problem playing Gibson style electrics cos the necks are to flexible and I’d always bend them out of tune, I grab them too hard, whereas Fenders, or anything with a Fender feel didn’t present that problem so I tended to lean that way. Also the attack on Fenders in more finger friendly, more like the acoustic.

– A kind of natural compression to the sound?

yeah, so it suited’ it easy to overplay an electric guitar when you’re used to an acoustic, whether it’s fingers or a pick. One of the most flagrant historic examples of that is Django Reinhard – when you listen to his records on electric guitar they sound horrible next to the genius tone, not to mention the content of his acoustic playing. He’s whacking the shit out of the electric and it hurts! And I did the same thing -everybody that switches, has to overcome that same tendency which was made easier on certain guitars than on others.

– After the darkness of Big Circumstance, you came back with a far more commercial album in Nothing But A Burning – a shift to new country?

The term new country got invented after we made that album, but the conscious effort made in those songs was definitely a shift. I’d had this big dry spell and at the end of the 80s, from the middle of 88 to the end of 89 I didn’t write anything,

– was that scary?

It was very scary, it was sort of like well OK, either I’ve got to think of some drastic thing to do or I’ve got to go and learn a new trade! So I decided to declare myself on sabbatical, I was gonna take 1990 off, which I did, and I just announced to the world that I was going to have no public involvement with anything, and I more or less did that. And within a week of having started on my sabbatical I started writing, and I wrote Child Of the Wind, and the songs started coming that ended up making up ‘Nothing But a Burning Light’.

But there’d been this big clearing of the slate before that, like the whole 80s was cancelled. The thing that I’d realised during that dry period was that I’d be looking around at songs and I noticed that I had no virtually no songs that someone who was an untrained guitar player could sit down and make work, and I thought that was kind of a lack, so I deliberately made an effort to write songs that you didn’t have to play like I do to make them sound good, you could just strum the chords and they’d still work. So Child of the Wind was like that, and most of the other song on NBABL fit that description. That was on purpose, that had the effect that it wasn’t an attempt to make the songs commercial, it was to make the accessible to someone that wanted to have fun playing them. And that kind of carried over into Dart to the Heart, and then I kinda dropped it – I got bored with that!

– Any label pressure?

No – well, record companies like radio air-play – but nothing that affected the content of the songs, or even really the way we recorded them. The choice of T-Bone Burnett to produce those records was a process that involved the record company, but we had a list of people and he was on everybody’s list. The sound of those records owes everything to T-Bone, and to the particular to the writing of the songs that set that up.

– Burning Light is an amazing sounding album

Nothing But A Burning Light came out really well. Dart To The Heart we didn’t get as lucky on, although there’s still a lot that I really like about that. But NBABL was one of those instances where everything falls together exactly right. It was such a great band on there – Keltner and Michael Been, Edgar Meyer and Booker T.

– Two albums with T-Bone on the major.

..and the Christmas album which was done sort of in between, which I produced though I owe a lot to T-Bone for that, for the inspiration of his attitude towards production more than any of the technical stuff. I guess it was the same as my process of learning from guitar players, I didn’t study what he did, but I picked up an understanding from him of how to focus on the essence of a song without screwing it up in the process of adding instruments to it. there are many many ways that you can mess with a song in the studio so there’s something very important about uncovering that essence and keeping it in the forefront.

– Was that a chance to re-indulge your love of folk music?

Well, in a way.. circumstantially I guess’ The Christmas album was something I’d wanted to do for 20 years because I’d loved that music and thought I could do something with it, but it took that long to get somebody to pay for it. We were doing these radio shows out of New York, we did 5 in the end, which became the Columbia Records Radio Hour, which became a monthly show that they did, I ended up doing all the Christmas ones.

– And you duetted with Lou Reed on Cry Of A Tiny Babe????

I know, it amazes me too – you should have been there when it happened. We’d rehearsed it but he was reading the lyrics off. There we were playing the song, and it came time for his verse and that’s what he did, and I just started laughing as you can probably hear on the ensuing chorus.

– New York was a favourite of yours?

Yeah that was a great album – I don’t really know the body of Lou’s work’ you know who else I really liked through that period was Laurie Anderson, or course they’re now a pair which is pretty interesting. She did some marvellous stuff. I don’t go to many shows, especially big shows, but I remember going to see her at Massey Hall in Toronto and it was maybe the best show I’ve ever seen, for sheer entertainment and content’

– now your on Rykodisc – it sounds like your back in a love affair with the guitar…

It’s what came out of the experiment – it starts with Dart, or maybe even Burning Light. It’s like I said, but the end of the 80s I’d finally learned what to do with an electric guitar, and you can start to hear that on the records, and it continues, I’m still learning all the time – the more I learn, the more I want to do with it, though the new album doesn’t feature that much electric, there’s a couple of prominent bits, but the Charity of Night features some extended leads and stuff. It’s the first time I’ve felt confident enough to allow myself to do the jazz part of the record – I’d always imported other people to do that, you get John Goldsmith on keyboards, or Hugh Marsh on violin adding the jazz into it, but as of the Charity of Night it was time for me to try and do some of it myself, though on the new album it’s not so much on the electric but the two instrumentals have a lot of improvising in them. I’m just letting myself play – we’ll see what happens when we put the band together to tour’

– And live? At Greenbelt the guitar playing was really front and centre…

That’s always been part of the live shows – Dialogue With The Devil, although I’m playing different thing in the solo part of it, it’s basically the same way I was doing it in 1974. To some extent those little lead things have always been in the shows, more so than on any of the records, and with the band shows there’s always been more electric guitar leads, until now when it seems to be evening out a bit. It’s fun to play, you know? It’s partly getting older and allowing myself more freedom. I’ve always had this built in limitation of things supposed to be a certain way, I’ve a limited concept of how things can be and how stretchy you can make things, and over the years that’s gotten a lot looser.

– The record sounds unfettered. Fun, passionate and full of energy.

There wasn’t much restraint – the restraints on me are my technical ability more than anything, and I suppose ones technical ability limits to some degree what you can imagine, at least in my case it does! It doesn’t stop at the same place, but you hear things projected from what you know how to do.

– your guitar now is a Linda Manzer, right?

I had a Larivee – I had the first cutaway guitar that Larivee ever made. Larivee was the first Canadian guitar maker to work with steel string guitars, and he developed a whole style of guitar making that owed nothing to Martin or Gibson, having a different concept of bracing, ‘n’ all that. And Linda along with a couple of other people was one of Larivee’s apprentices for a while – there were three of four of them who were spawns of the original Larivee thing, only Larivee has moved into more a shop thing, with helpers – not a factory as such, but more like that than it was. Linda continued to make guitars on her own.

I had two Larivee guitars, and a David Wren, who was another Larivee apprentice. I had two Wrens, one got destroyed in a fire, at a rehearsal space, which was right before one of the tours of Italy, so I had to play electric guitar – my telecaster was all I had left, and the Italians were really pissed at that, and were yelling out ‘acoustica, acoustica!!’ They didn’t want to hear me playing electric at all, and didn’t believe that my guitar had been burnt – they thought I was putting one over on them.

Anyway, I ended up moving from that to a Manzer. I’d experimented with a few commercial guitars that people were trying to get me to use, and I didn’t like any of them – that was in 86/87. The guitar that Linda made me then I had until the beginning of this year and I traded it back to her for a new one with slightly different characteristics. It was a particularly deep bodied guitar with a cedar top, slightly wider than average neck to make room for finger-picking. When I got it that’s what I wanted, but over the years as I started switching back and forth between electric and acoustic more often, I started wanting my acoustic strings to be closer together so it wasn’t such an adjustment moving back and forth. I found to that I developed a problem over the Charity of Night tour I started getting a problem with my right hand fingers, and what had happened is that because of the extra body depth – we’re only talking about a 1/2 inch but with a guitar that’s significant – the top corner of the guitar was pressing in the nerves in my forearm and over the 10 years that I’d played the guitar it had started to cause problems with the nerves in my arm. So I approached Linda about getting another one from her and she makes a kind of guitar that’s sort of wedge shaped – narrower on the bass side. You sacrifice some bottom end tone, acoustically, but no-one listens to guitars acoustically any more live anyway – very few people even know how to mic one anymore’ The wedge shaped one is not extra deep, mainly because survival is more important than the bass end! That’s what I used at Greenbelt – it’s slight, and not really noticeable to the casual observer, but it does have enough of a slope that it doesn’t put pressure on that particular spot. I knew this from playing the Dobro which has a very thin body and I wasn’t having any trouble playing that so duh! Make the connection, it’s obvious! But so ended up with the new Manzer, which I really love. As I said, it sacrifices a slight amount of bass tone acoustically, electrically, with the fishman pickup that’s in it, it sounds as good as any other guitar with a Fishman. Just the latest generation of piezo. It’s got a really nice neck – it’s a beautiful guitar to play.

– Mic and line in the studio?

Normally I would just mic it – we probably did some of it plugged in, but we never used it, it’s kind of more for safety – if we get a little noise on the mic, or we have to punch in…

But I don’t really like the sound of it plugged in when you don’t have to have it – it’s there live because there’s no other way, but the new Manzer is not what appears on the new album – that’s a Collings that I have that I’ve had for three years. It’s the one that like D28, big body. You hear that on the Charity of Night and on Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu, because the new Manzer was still too green – it hadn’t opened up yet’

– Electrics on the album?

On Blueberry Hill, it’s a black and cheesy Charvel Surfcaster, And a Strat that a friend gave me that she’d had lying around is doing a lot of the leads of the album.

– which artists have you seen recently that class as ‘ones to watch’?

Ani Defranco well enough known at this point that she’s not really one to watch unless you haven’t heard her yet in which case you’d better! But she’s to me the best thing happening now, in terms of acoustic style songwriters. And Kelly Joe Phelps is running right up there behind her. They’re both completely original really interesting players playing very different styles of music, but very distinctive in their approaches. For guitar players, Bill Frisell – he’s somebody that I would go out of my way to see live, and Marc Ribot – the Cubanos Postisos Record – that’s an incredible record. I saw him play in New York at one of those weird avant garde gigs and he was excellent – those are the kind of things that interest me. James Blood Ulmer is someone else that interests me greatly, and has done since the 80s.

– are you influenced by the avante garde?

I like stuff that’s out on the edge, I’ve always liked that. I’ve never seen myself as being there, but I’ve always wanted to be.

– Any plans to work with Jonatha Brooke again?

I’d love to, but there’s no plans to at the moment’ She’s a fantastic writer and singer and a great person. She’s someone who uses a lot of different tunings but really uses them interestingly and doesn’t just play the same thing from tuning to tuning. She’s got a great sense of sonority.

Managing Information Streams 4 – General twitter tips.

Here’s a load of more general twitter tips, based on my observation of what goes on on there, and in no small part based on the things I’ve got wrong, and the twittering faux-pas I still make, but designed to help us use Twitter as part of a well-managed information filter… (I’ll blog about something other than twitter later, just wanted to tidy this one up for now.)

#1 keep if fluid – it seems the best way to work with Twitter is not to see subbing to or unsubbing from a particular feed as a big deal. It’s not like adding someone as a friend on Facebook where it’s likely to lead to a flurry of interaction. They’ll get a notice that you’re following them, but they won’t that you’ve unfollowed, and no-one seems to get hung up on that anyway. Especially not if they post a lot. I post very regularly, and there are bound to be people who find it clutters their twitter stream to the point where it’s not desirable to have there. So they unsub, no biggie. I’m not offended, they aren’t overwhelmed and my twitter page is still there if they want to check out what I’m up to at any point…

#2 beware of too much IM style usage – this is only an issue if you WANT people to follow you – if you’re just using it to interact with people you know, this isn’t a problem at all. But if you’re trying to build a core group of followers, the feeling that you’re listening to one side of a conversation in moon language is really off-putting (I have been guilty of this, for sure!) – here are a couple of tips to get round that – firstly, use the ‘@’ reply protocol, so that at least there’s a link to the person whose post you’re replying to. (on the twitter.com page, it links to the nearest-in-date post in the person’s twitter-stream that you’re replying to) Secondly, if you’re replying to a post with a link in it, re-tweet the link to give context. thirdly, break up the flow of interaction with some stand-alone inspiration or information – make a point of having at least every 3 or 4th tweet be a non-reply – a question, a cool link, a thought about something, a gig date, a suggestion, a status update…

#3 don’t use text speak but do edit. SMS-style abbreviations are a) not understood by everybody, and b) annoy a lot of people. So instead, just think about how you can reword your tweet to fit into the 140 characters and still say what needs to be said in english (or your tweet language of choice!)

#4 don’t get stuck sounding like a series of adverts – if yours is an info-only twitter feed, then go with information, not hyperbole. This is just an observation, but it really doesn’t seem to work. Twittists seem to be up for info-feeds, or opinion feeds, but I’ve not seen much traffic around ones that sound like mini-commercials. So either post stuff with an opinion that’s personalised, or just provide the info…

#5 go with a regular syntax structure – again, most important for news/info style feeds. Are you putting the date first, or the link ,or a category (either in square brackets, or using hashtags.) It’ll make it easier to spot your posts in a stream, and also to extract the right info from it (see my To The Left Of The Mainstream music recommendation account for an example).

#6 work out what time of day you want to post a particular bit of info. Lots of people don’t go back and read tweets they missed – so if you’re writing something for Americans but you’re in the UK, don’t post it before about 2pm, or most of them will miss it. And vice versa. Know your timezones!

#7 don’t finish a twit-sesh on a weird post. Especially if you use the twitter-widgets, you don’t really want to leave a bizarre or insulting tweet up there for two long… follow it up with a ‘goodnight all’ tweet to tidy things up. Assume that anything and anyone you tweet about will be read by the person you’d least like to have reading it. Then you’re safe.

#8 have fun! web interaction at its best is about relearning how to ‘play’ – it’s a big game, and the more you interact with it as an adventure, as fun, as something to be discovered rather than something to be conquered, the more the time you spend on it will be open to the possibility of creative reimagining. It may be that twitter is just for posting gig dates and album news for you. That’s fine. It may be that you just answer Twitter’s expressed question – ‘What are you doing?’ a couple of times a day. That too is obviously fine. However, it may be that you discover a way of using it that no-one else has thought of. Hurrah. Seeing it as play leaves you open to the possibility of these and more. (I’ll write more soon about the play thing.)

For those of you doing music, Twitter is a great sand-box in which to experiment with your online persona. It gives you space to step out of the 3rd-person big-record-label-clone website that you’ve had since the late 90s when we all thought that was the way to go. It’s a way to add a little box of personal stuff to your site and let people know you’re human. Chances are it’ll get more interest than the flash-driven corporate looking static website, and will be a stepping stone into turning your website into a blog-style interactive space, or at least doing what I’ve done, which is have the blog updates as the main content on your site front page.

Get out there, get interactive, and use twitter to save on time and energy in that engagement. Enjoy!

Bluffing…

I just watched the following video on Myspace – a hilarious clip of Fred Armisen going for an audition that he clearly has no place being at –

And it reminded me of when I did a very similar thing, albeit slightly more unwittingly. Back in about 1996/97, I had just moved back to London from Lincoln, and was just about eking out a living teaching (still driving back up to Lincoln one day a week) and living in a house where I was sharing a room as that’s all I could afford.

A friend of mine who had just left a gig as an on-stage musician in the west end told me that they were auditioning for the role of Buddy Holly’s bassist in ‘Buddy!’ the musical, and suggested I go for it. He seemed to think that the fact that I’d spent less than 10 minutes in my life with a double bass in my hands, couldn’t really sing and had no clue how to do an american accent wasn’t going to be a hindrance and that I should go for it.

So I went round to a friend’s house to try her double bass, did about 15 minutes and thought ‘that’ll do’. And then worked out two songs to sing, which were (I shit you not), ‘Looking For The Heart Of Saturday Night’ and ‘I Fought The Law’, both with electric bass accompaniment (despite there being no electric bass in the show).

The audition itself, fortunately, was a one at a time affair, not a big casting call. So I went in, onto the stage, with two blokes sat in the audience, plugged in my bass, and played (well) and sang (terribly) my two songs, then they said ‘can you play some double bass for us?’, so I picked up the double bass that was on the stage. It had action a mile high, and felt like a different scale length to the one I’d tried. I played a couple of really shitty rock ‘n’ roll walking basslines – I must’ve sounded like some 12 year old in a music shop, trying an instrument he’d never played…

They called me down to where they were sat, and gave me a script to read ‘it’s a southern US accent we need’. So I launch into it, trip over the words, get the emphasis wrong, and worst of all drift from really appalling new york jewish accent to californian surf-bum and back to ridiculous cowboy. The kind of american accent that makes Dick Van Dyke’s cockney sound like he grew up in Plaistow.

Thinking back, I’m surprised they didn’t either laugh or punch me in the face for wasting their time.

The only other time I’d ever felt quite so HOPELESSLY out of my depth was my audition for Salford University when I was 18. I’d driven down to Manchester the night before, so Martin and I could go and see Ocean Colour Scene at the International 3 [side note – this was before their first album came out, and they were, in all seriousness, one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen – hard to believe given the terraces rock they morphed into later…] – we slept in the car, and drove into Manchester the next morning, where I bought my first ever jazz records (a Coltrane live in Europe album called ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, Mingus Plays Duke and a Bill Evans Trio album called ‘Autumn Leaves’ that was actually an edit from ‘Live At The Village Vanguard’…) then went out to Salford for the interview.

I got there and there was a guitar player sat outside the interview room playing King’s X tunes. He was, to me then, amazing. I was REALLY bad at working out songs off records; I had no ear for it at all. So hearing this guy play all this stuff was the first point at which I thought ‘hmmm, maybe I shouldn’t have rated myself quite so highly on their pre-audition questionnaire’.

Anyway, I was eventually called in, played my two solo pieces, REALLY badly – mistakes, out of tune, everything that could have gone wrong short of pissing myself did. They then did an ear test, and I had no idea how to pick out intervals, didn’t know what a compound interval was, bollocksed up the reading test… by this point I half expected then to invoice me for an hour of wasted time… I was asked how I thought it went and said ‘frankly, shit’, and they smiled and said ‘we’ll let you know’.

…fast forward 15 years, and I’ve done two masterclasses at that same uni. So maybe one day I’ll be playing rockabilly slap upright on a west end stage, you never can tell…

Traveling with music gear – prepare for the worst!

One of the favourite points of discussion amongst touring musicians is the whole twisted world of planes and instruments. From baggage limits to carry-on details, plane-side checking of bags, to buying extra seats for cellos, there are a million different takes on it, thanks to airline policy being so utterly baffling most of the time.

For years, I travelled everywhere with my bass in a standard lightweight gig-bag, and took it onto the plane. I even managed to get my bass onto Ryanair flights, but smiling, looking horrified if they suggested checking it, and in one instance, having a friend hold it while I checked in my luggage, but then taking it with me through the screening thing…

then a couple of years ago things started to tighten up, initially, i think, due to fuel price increases (and the ensuing panick about plane weight) and then it all went nuts after the london bombing (it had actually settled down a lot after Sept 11th, only to be reignited by London).

At that point, I switched to a foam bass case – I serendipitously lucked into a really nice lightweight case when a student of mine wanted me to help him sell his bass, which I did on the condition that I could keep the foam case and sell it with a gig bag instead… So I had that for a couple of years, and a great case it was too.

Then last year at NAMM, I picked up an InCase gig-bag – it’s a backpack style gig-bag, with shoulder and waist straps, but is more than padded enough to go in the hold. Since then I’ve been checking my bass in the hold, but carrying my rack-gear in a carry-on suitcase, and it’s proved to be pretty effective – no damage at all to my bass since I started doing it, and the case itself is holding up really well too.

Effective, that is, until flying back from California to Ohio, and the plane being completely full, so they checked my carry-on suitcase in the hold, and not via the usual ‘pick it up on the gangway’ method, but actually sending it through via checked baggage to my destination.

Because it was intended as hand luggage, I hadn’t packed the stuff in it all that well, and was pretty horrified by the idea of them checking it. I kicked up a fuss, told them what the contents were worth, but after a half-hearted attempt to find space in the plane, my bag was taken and checked.

I got off lightly, really – at the other end there were some marks on the faceplates of both the Looperlatives, but all the gear in it works fine.

It could’ve been a lot worse. A LOT worse. So what’s the moral of the story? Prepare for the worst. That’s part of the reason I started checking my basses in the first place – just couldn’t risk them putting a gig bag in the hold again. But now I need to do the same with my carry-on bag. Wrap the gear in clothes or towels, pack everything tight so it doesn’t rattle, and make sure that your travel gear is as SMALL AS IT CAN BE. I have a friend from California who toured Europe a couple of years ago, and got stung with a MASSIVE baggage overweight fee on the way from Sweden to Scotland… The worst I’ve had is about £30 on the way from London to Italy, back when I was trying to carry two Echoplexes in my bag (those things weighed a tonne!)… There are loads of bits of gear I’d dearly love to check out and use, but I stay away from as I don’t want my rig to become non-portable. and portable means ‘can fly with it on a cheap-ass airline’.

Anyway, for reference, if you’re flying in Europe, Easyjet have a ‘no weight limit on hand baggage within reason’ thing going on – if your bag fits the size restriction, they let you take it on. I think it’s because it saves them money on ground staff dealing with checked luggage, but it’s great for us, as you can pack the heavy fragile shit into your hand luggage. No such generosities from Ryanair, who have very tight weight limits.

Within the US, limits are generally much more generous than in Europe, but it’s definitely worth checking on policies, and PREPARE FOR THE WORST.

Also, for the americans reading this, you may well find that trains in Europe work out cheaper and easier than planes – there are no baggage weight limits (though if you turned up with 15 basses and a couple of ampeg stacks, you’ll probably get stopped!), and your gear stays near you. Look into Eurail passes for touring – it’s a great way to get to see the continent, and you aren’t penalised for changing your travel plans if a gig gets cancelled or swapped like you would be if you’d booked it all by plane…

Future music stats….

Sarda just sent me a fab link to zdnet’s blog of digital music industry facts and figures – here are three at random –

1. Top music retailers in Q1 2007: Wal-Mart, Best Buy, iTunes, Amazon, Target
2. 72% of online Americans listen to music on their PCs
3. 10% of all music sold in Europe in 2007 will be digital music

Piecing together anything coherent by way of a response to these will require a lot of reading, extrapolating of trends, and a look at what’s happening outside the mainstream (I doubt that I’ve lost that many sales because people have gone into Walmart or Target hoping to buy my CDs and been disappointed…)

But the blog is well worth a read if you’re interested in the trends and stats in the monetization of music…

Early Christmas presents – your virtual gifts here…

It’s something we’ve done in a small way over in the forum for a couple of years, but I thought I’d copy it over here as a comment thread this year – giving Christmas presents is often expensive and perhaps almost as often, pointless. You spend ages trying to find something that is adequate as a gift, not that is either useful or of benefit, or something where the purchasing in the first place is for the greater good…

We can talk about fair trade presents (and beautiful solo bass cds) later but for now, we’re looking for free online pressies. They can be as simple as recommendations for cool websites, or links to sites with free (legal) MP3s, or cartoons, films. Please don’t post links to anything where the legality or morality of the derivation is questionable, like MP3 blogs not sanctioned by the artists etc. but links to last.fm pages with free mp3s are good, or even last.fm pages where albums are streamable if not downloadable.

This is your chance to offer a free gift of something fun and useful and artsy and cool to all the readers of this ‘ere blog…

So here are my three for you – one or two of which I may have mentioned before –

The End of Control – on ongoing ebook, readable as a blog or downloadable as PDF chapters, on the changes in the music industry.
Free Culture – another e-book about the nature of copyright, ownership and the proliferation of ideas and content in a digital age.
New Music Strategies – a third e-book about the changes in the music industry. More deeply thought out stuff on where it’s all going.

So there you go, three books for Christmas (or for you Americans, you can see them as a Thanksgiving present too, should you wish to, along with this thought and this thought about what Thanksgiving is).

So post away, comments are open – give a freebie web-gift for Christmas! :o)

Doug Pinnick interview from March 1999

I’ve just been listening to King’s X, which reminded me I’ve yet to re-post my interview with Doug Pinnick. Doug has been one of my biggest bass heroes since I first heard Out Of The Silent Planet back in the late 80s – I was and still am a massive King’s X fan, so interviewing him was a bit of a dream come true. And it was made all the more enjoyable and memorable by the kind of conversation we had – he’d just come out as gay, which had massively upset the conservative end of their christian fanbase in the US, but on the upside had inspired an amazing album in Dogman… So we talked about all kinds of stuff – american culture, theology, bigotry, etc. etc. for hours. And with about half an hour to go i remembered that i was supposed to be getting a load of information for bass geeks, and that’s what this bit is! I’ve probably got the tape somewhere with the rest of it on, and maybe one day I’ll get round to typing it up, will run it by Doug and put it up somewhere if he’s OK with it… But for now, here’s the bassy bit of the interview, which is still pretty interesting! :o)


At the tail end of the 80s, the rock world underwent a bit of a shake up, as a handful of groups arrived on the scene, combining hard rocking guitars with such disparate elements as soulful vocal harmonies, funky bass lines and a sharp line in observational lyrics that were a far cry from the sword ‘n’ sorcery stuff that most of the HM fraternity were prone to churning out.

Bands such as Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Living Colour, Faith No More and, of course, Kings X, took over the pages of both the metal mags and the ‘serious’ music weeklies, hailed as the saviours of hard rock, and, for the most part, made a sizeable dent in the charts.

However, despite combining crushingly heavy guitar riffs with radio-friendly three-part harmony vocals, and enjoying some very favourable reviews, Kings X have so far managed to skirt round the edge of the mainstream without yet finding that elusive crossover hit.

Now, with a new King’s X album, ‘Tape Head’, in the shops and ‘Massive Grooves” by Doug’s solo project, Poundhound available, Kings X are finally coming back to the UK.

‘I always wanted to play bass, for as long as I can remember,’ begins Doug. ‘Eventually, I got lucky – a friend of mine gave me a bass. I grew up in the ghetto, and we were pretty poor. I never even thought I’d be able to play but this friend of mine loaned it to me and I wouldn’t give it back to him! I started playing and I was so happy! I mean, just one note made me ecstatic, and from that day on I’ve just played and I love it! I don’t remember learning how or really working at it because, even though I did, it was so much fun. Every new lick, every new note, was like “yeah!”‘

Thus begins the tale. But what kind of things were you playing along to back then?

‘It was the early 70s when I started playing bass, so I jammed along with records by Led Zeppelin, Sly And The Family Stone, Deep Purple, Yes, Kansas – that kind of stuff. I was a music-aholic! Anything I bought I would put on and play along and try to learn the licks. I did that for about two years and then started playing in bands. After that I never tried to copy anybody else – I was too busy having fun, writing music and stuff.’

What were those first bands like?

‘They were all pretty much garage bands. I wanted to just play bass but ended up singing in all of them. I thought each band was going to make it, but they all sucked! It was a good learning experience!’

How did you make the jump from garage band to Kings X?

‘I moved to Springfield, Missouri, to look for work and I met Jerry (Gaskill: KX drummer), and Ty (Tabor: KX guitarist). We formed a four piece with another guitarist for a couple of years, but it soon became evident that we were meant to be a trio!

‘After that, we played cover tunes for about five years, and then moved to Texas. We had dealings with a couple of small Christian labels before signing to MegaForce/Atlantic and releasing the first Kings X album. Since then we’ve been making records, doing gigs and going through everything everybody else goes through.’

That is, if “everything everybody else goes through” is releasing seven critically acclaimed albums, and doing regular arena tours both as headline act and as support act to some of the biggest names in rock!

There was a big change in the Kings X sound with 1994’s “Dogman” album. What happened?

‘Sam Taylor, who produced our first four albums, had a big influence on our sound, but he never managed to capture on record how heavy we are live. When he left us after “Kings X”, we got Brendan O’Brien in to do “Dogman”. He’s one of my favourite producers. He gets a really dry mix, and that’s what I wanted to go for. There’s one song on “Dogman” called Black The Sky, that is now my standard to mix to. That’s the sound on the Poundhound album – big and fat – more like our live sound’huge!’

Anyone doubting just how huge the Kings X live sound is should take a quick look at Doug’s live rig. Any queries will soon be laid to rest:

‘I use 6 Ampeg SVT 8×10 cabinets and I’ve got two double stereo Ampeg power amps – you can hook eight speakers up to each amp. They’re split in half with two electrical plugs on each amp, to cope with the power! I use an SVT pre-amp for my low end and a Fender Dual Showman for the high end, then run them both into a little mixer, through an EQ and into the power amps. Then I turn it up!!

‘People ask why I use so many cabs. It’s mainly because I like to get 40Hz and lower, to get that church organ kind of sound, so that when I hit a low note there’s that rumble that just shakes the building!’

You’ve been long associated with Hamer basses, and particularly with their 12-strings. I guess you were a Cheap Trick fan?

‘Yes, Cheap Trick was one of my favourite bands, and Tom Pederson is still one of my favourite bassists. We opened for them when “Out Of The Silent Planet” came out, and he let me play one of his 12-strings. Even though it was right-handed, it felt and sounded amazing, and he said, ‘just call Hamer up and get one.’

‘Hamer wanted to work with (King’s X guitarist) Ty’ and I said ‘What about me?!’. They replied, ‘We’ll make you some basses too, Doug!’, so I started using the 12-strings. The company started getting calls from people saying they’d see us play and were interested in them, so Hamer were quite happy to keep the thing going.

‘Ever since then, I’ve been using Hamers. They’ve made me about 12 basses, all of which have been custom-built for me. I have really long hands so I go for wide but shallow necks. I also have Seymour Duncan pickups with a power booster inside, so anything I plug into distorts. It’s my sound. The bass, the amp, the strings – which are DRs – and my hands’that’s my sound.’

Recently though, you’ve reverted to four stings’

‘On the last two Kings X albums, and even the Poundhound album, I’ve used predominantly a four-string. The 12-string is a weird animal to play, it didn’t quite fit with some of the Kings X stuff. Ty felt that it weakened the sound of his guitar, and I finally got tired of the power struggle and gave in for the sake of the overall sound. If I write a song on the 12-string then I can work the rest of the sound around it. Like Jeff Ament did on Jeremy with Pearl Jam – the 12-string carries the whole song. Human Behaviour on “Dogman” and Faith Hope Love were both written and recorded on the 12-string. I can actually play the whole of Faith Hope Love with the harmonics and arpeggios and everything on the 12-string, I don’t even need the guitar!!’

Kings X have always been known as a musicians’ band, and have been more influential than your record sales might suggest. Is that frustrating?

‘Not really. It’s great to be recognised by other musicians and we’ll always go down as the musicians’ band. It’s amazing how our name comes up in the strangest places. All across the board – jazz musicians, pop musicians and everything. But we’ve still never sold that many records. I think that was down to bad promotion. When ‘Dogman’ was released, New York radio stations were playing the title track all the time and we sold more records there than anywhere, but there still wasn’t a major single release of any of the tracks.

‘Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam was quoted on MTV as saying that as far as he’s concerned, King’s X invented grunge! When “Out Of The Silent Planet” came out, no-one else seemed to be doing D-tuned riffing like that. Then we went away for 18 months touring, got home and everyone was D-tuning, which was weird. We’re just one of those quirky weird bands, like Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Faith No More that were around in the late 80s, so I feel we were inspirational somewhere along the line.

‘As far as influencing bassists is concerned, I think my tone is what I’m known for, which is fine by me. Chris Squire from Yes is my hero, and he had such a great tone. Roundabout and America were two of the first tunes I ever really sat down to work out all the way through.

‘I’m not really impressed by fast players any more. I don’t cut them down, because that takes a lot of work. I admire someone like Yngwie Malmsteen who can sit and play like that, but I’ve stopped writing to be clever, the gigs were ending up too much like hard work!’

With Kings X signed to a new label and things looking rosy for the band, why choose now to start a solo project?

‘I’ve written about 100 songs in the last two years, and when I write for Kings X there are usually a few songs that don’t work in that format, so as an outlet I decided to do my own record. The album is out on Metal Blade, with me playing bass and guitar and do all the vocals with a few different drummers. It’s the dark side of King’s X.

‘Most of the material is real heavy but melodic as well. I’ve gone for something between Sly Stone and Hendrix, using the C-tuned/B-tuned Kings X style riffs, but with a kind of Neil Young approach too, sometimes. I’m making it real rootsy. I’ve got all the guitars tuned down to C, so it’s real low but with my usual Gospel-y vocals. It’s completely me, this is my record. I’m a control freak and this is my way of doing everything.’

GWB's room full of Elephants

So soon-to-be-gone President Bush has called the Burmese Regime Brutal“Every civilised nation has a responsibility to stand up for people suffering under a brutal military regime like the one that has ruled Burma for too long.”

Now, did any of the journalists at the press call after this manage to fit into the White House, what with all the unmentioned elephants in the room? Guantanamo, Iraq, The death penalty for kids, and going further back the CIA involvement in supporting a who slew of unelected ‘brutal military regimes’ in Central America in the Reagan years.

Yes, as I mentioned the other day, I think the international community has to do something about Burma, but they also have to do something about Iraq!

The whole thing is such a mess – what do we do? You’ve got one prosectable war criminal (if Iraq ever makes it to the Hague, there’s no way Bush, Blair, Rumsfeld et al are going to get away with the clear trail of breadcrumbs leading up to a load of made-up BS about WMDs) calling on China, who are now fast approaching their 60th year of illegal occupation and brutal repression in Tibet to condemn the Burmese.

I’m torn. On the one hand, I’m inspired by the passion of Jyoti’s blog on the lunacy of Bush condemning Burma, and am stunned at the hypocrisy of Bush’s statement. But I’m also deeply concerned about the real possibility that without quick intervention of some kind, the Burmese thing could escalate into a massacre, and that requires the US and the Chinese to apply some pressure.

I guess we end up like one of those cowboy films where the good and bad guys get together to fight the momentarily-even-worse guys before getting back on with their own squabbles once the matter in hand has been taken care of. So right now, everyone tries to stop the killing in Burma, and then we turn it round and make a big ole flap about the hypocrisy of the ongoing killing, occupation and human rights desecration going on in Iraq.

Damn, this world is a mess!