Update on my broken bass…

Anderson Page and Steve Lawson fighting over Steve's Bass. 'From My Cold Dead Hands'So, as you know, the saga so far is that British Airways smashed up my bass on the way over here back in Mid-Dec. I emailed them and rang them and was told to ‘send them the fragile tag and the bubble wrap receipt‘ – fragile tag was a generic piece of cardboard, and the request for bubble wrap receipt came off like a sick joke, if you’d seen the damage done…

Anyway, over the course of NAMM weekend, quite a few bass builders looked at it, most with a look of horror on their faces. All said it wouldn’t repair adequately, and at best would need to have the spruce top sliced off and replaced. Not good. That’s a few grand’s worth of work.

Fast forward to yesterday, and I finally get to visit the lovely geniuses at Modulus Guitars, who made the bass (and every other solid bodied electric bass I’ve played in the last 16 years). I showed the bass to their chief bass builder, designer and all-round bass building ninja-dude, Joe Perman, and he basically wrote off the body. Because the crack goes ALL THE WAY THROUGH THE BODY by the jack socket, and is right across the grain through the top, any repair is going to be a botch job at best. He said he could make it better, but not great.

So we start discussing other options, after deciding it needs a new body. At this point, the willingness of Joe and Modulus A & R guy and dude-who-sorts-things-out Anderson Page to bend over backwards to help was astounding. Ideas were thrown around, including putting the neck and electronics from my bass on a completely solid body until they had time to build a new one, and even shipping me the body to have Martin Peterson assemble it in London…

First Touch of my new bass bodyBut then a Joe has a light-bulb moment, remembering that there was in fact a semi-hollow Q6 body that had a tiny blemish (I couldn’t even see it!) that meant it couldn’t be sold (their quality control is exceptional). I looked at it, and loved the idea…

‘can I take it home on Thursday then?’ – er no, it’ll take a coupla weeks to get it finished and sprayed and for the lacquer to dry… which reminded me of a conversation I’d had last week with Steve Azola, maker of the incredible Azola upright basses, who was wondering what my bass would be like with a rubbed finish, rather than the heavy lacquer finish. “if we did that kind of finish, would that work?”

Joe’s eyes lit up – it was a plan that allowed them to use a body that couldn’t be sold, to experiment with a new finish for their basses AND I get a perfect working bass to go home with. The old body on mine becomes a write-off, but the new bass will be a whole other bass adventure for me. The wood combination is different (walnut top on an alder body) so will add a different flavour to my music. Always a nice game to play 🙂

As you can see in the photo at the top, part of me is loathe to let go of the bass that has been MY sound for a decade. It’s what happens at the end of my arms, a new limb… But that’s not going to happen, it’s not going to be fixed, BA saw to that by completely trashing the old one.

Good job bass manufacturers don’t function like airlines.

We’ll be heading back to Modulus tomorrow morning to see how they are getting on with it… More photos and blog posts then!

Photos from NAMM so far…

Steve Lawson and a photo of Geddy Lee... or is it the other way round! NAMM so far has been a whole lot of fun – have met up with loads of great friends, checked out some fab music gear, chatted a lot, drank coffee, playing some music on the looperlative booth (and discovered a couple of amazing new Looperlative features – video coming on those ASAP!)

Of course, I’ve also run into loads of pictures of Geddy Lee looking scarily like me as always (see above), but below is a round up of the rest of my pictures so far from NAMM – bass gear-wise, my favourite things so far have been the Mark Audio powered speakers (not really bass gear, more portable PA equipment – looks PERFECT for what Lobelia and I do!) and the new Ernie Ball bass with the push button pick-up controls… the great sound of it really took me by surprise.

Have met lots of of twitter friends too, which is rather lovely, and not a small number of people whose opening gambit has been ‘dude, I LOVE your blog’ – so this post is for you lot! 🙂

More House Concert Adventures.

Steve Lawson with Owen Biddle at a house concert in PhiladelphiaOne of the magical things about house concerts is just how quickly they can be put together. Because there’s no ‘press’ involved, no promotional deadlines to hit, emails can be sent out to friends as soon as the gig is decided on, and an audience can be rustled up in about 2-3 weeks.

Which is exactly what happened to us for Philadelphia. Linda Mills sent me a message on Twitter just before Christmas saying ‘what would it take for you to come to Philadelphia?’ – we swapped Tweets, then emails, and it was booked! Because of Philly’s proximity to New York and New Jersey, a lot of the other twitter and social media friends in the area were up for making the trip, some musician friends were emailed, and a plot was hatched.

The date was picked because it was the day before Lo and I were going to be giving a looping masterclass at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh anyway, so we’d be out and about, and needed to have a car rented for that weekend anyway.

And once again, we were in the now-familiar situation of turning online friends into real friends, getting guided tours of cool cities, and introducing another room full of lovely people on to the delights of house concerts. (and posing for bizarre pics with lovely audience members/friends at the end, like the one above)

The gig went so well – the PA was put together from bits borrowed from Lo’s brother and from the drummer from her old band, Kevin Quickle. So the sound was fab. And Linda’s house has a through-lounge, meaning that we could do the fairly common L-shape set up, with a lovely assortment of sofas and chairs and cushions for people to sit on.

As a reference for how well house concerts work, we sold more than one album-per-person at the gig, including Lo’s first foray into selling her entire back catalogue + rarities on a 1gig memory stick. Definitely something we’ll be exploring further in the near future!

Being an audience largely drawn from the world of social media, the amount of fab technology on show was amazing, from great cameras, to Macs streaming the gig live to Ustream, two Nokia N95s taking pics and video, iPhones tweeting and twit-picking… Welcome to the future; blink and we’ll be onto something new.

We now can’t WAIT for the 3 more house concerts we’ve got in Northern California on the 22nd,23rd and 24th January – it’s going to be a LOT of fun. 🙂

..But before that, it’s NAMM, which starts tomorrow. Except for the ‘social media for musicians‘ session that I’m doing tonight. If that counts as NAMM for me, we start in about 2 hours!

…Oh, and one more thing – if you want the definitive explanation on how looping works, just watch the video below, from the Philly show:

Pre-NAMM Social Media Seminar/Workshop, in Santa Ana, Jan 14th.

Gig survival kit - it takes more than strings and cables...Finally, the details have been nailed down, and thanks to the wikkid organisational skillz of the wonderful Geoff Hickman, I’ll be doing a ‘future of social media for music makers’ masterclass in Santa Ana, the night before NAMM starts.

Date: Jan 14th
Time: 7.30pm
Venue: The Olde Ship, Santa Ana (map)
Cost: $15.00

Description:

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got… no, wait, that’s the Cheers theme-tune… anyway, it’s true that the times they have a-changed for anyone trying to make it in the music world – record labels are resorting to increasingly desperate measures to make money and artists are getting squeezed. The smart money is definitely on handling your own career, out there on the world wide interwebs. But how? There are million services promising audience reach, targeted email addresses, high profile this and big bucks that… most of which are glorified spam email campaigns. So what can we do? How can we, in the words of Rage Against The Machine, ‘Take the Power Back‘?

“Enter Steve Lawson, a solo bassist and ambient/electronic music pioneer from the UK.

“Steve’s managed to keep his career buoyant for the last decade, all via online interaction direct with his audience. He was exploring social media tools before the term ‘social media’ existed, and was using the web to connect with fans and fellow artists back in the heady days of Web 1.0.

“These days he splits his time between playing his beguiling cinematic music – at venues ranging from house concerts to the Royal Albert Hall – and teaching other musicians how to form genuine connections with their audience, to understand the new attention economy of the internet, and make the most of the opportunities that are out there. It’s not easy, it’s not a get rich quick scheme, and it probably won’t result in you making a million. But if that’s what you’re looking for, buy a lottery ticket. The music world has never been a good place to get rich. This is a chance to discuss, to ask questions and to come up with workable strategies for finding the people who want your music to soundtrack their lives. Sounds great, huh?”

There you go. Please do forward this page to any friends of yours who are going to NAMM, and may benefit from a lil’ StevieStyle social media make-over.

And if you’re at NAMM, please do drop by and say hi. Lobelia and I will be at the Looperlative, Modulus and Accugroove booths as well as around and about. And we’ll be tweeting, streaming some video, and generally having a lark!

Coming to America…

Steve Lawson and Lobelia a live photograph taken in Hounslow, London.A week from today, Lo and I will be in New York! How exciting is that? Well, for us, very exciting. For you, probably less so. 🙂

But what may be of a little more interest is the series of house concerts that we’re doing. Being house concerts, I’m not putting the addresses up online, but if you want to more info on any of these please do drop me an email via the contact tab, or normal email if you’ve already got my address!

There are a couple of things still pending, so do keep an eye on the blog, especially if you’re in California or Philadelphia.

So here’s the list:

Dec 19th – Toledo, Ohio
Dec 20th – Brown Deer, Wisconsin (near Milwaukee) – details
Dec 22nd – Chicago Illinois

Jan 5th – Nashville (this will be a gig in the evening and a future of social media masterclass during the day – lots of details on request!)
(in here there could be a bass masterclass in Philadephia and there will be a future of social media for musicians masterclass in the LA area – more deets ASAP!)
Jan 15th-18th – NAMM Show, Anaheim California (demoing for Looperlative, Modulus and AccuGroove)
Jan 19th – gig, Long Beach, California, also featuring Vicki Genfan (she’s so good, it’s scary) – details
Jan 23rd – House Concert, San Jose
Jan 24th – House Concert, San Jose

There you go – that’s quite a lot of stuff going on, and may well be lots more… if you can see a hole in the calendar, and can think of something cool for us to do, be it a gig or a music masterclass, or a seminar/session on the future of the music industry, do get in touch. We’re open to offers :

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)

The Musical Mechanics of 'Feeling': Wordless Story Telling

Right, here’s a blog post I promised on Twitter at the beginning of the week, but have only just got round to writing. Here were my original ‘tweets’ –

solobasssteve “Blog post idea – the musical mechanics of ‘feeling’: ambiguity, journey, wordless story-telling and narrative/soundtrack quality…”
solobasssteve “Gifted singers routinely sing like they’re still discovering the unfolding tale of the song. Instrumentalists rarely play like that…”

One of the things I work most hard on in my music is developing the relationship between phrasing and feeling. Learning how to play a tune as though it has words and is telling a story. For that reason, most of my biggest influences are singers; the musicians I try and emulate are those whose music strikes me on an emotional, feeling level rather than a technical, heady one.

I often find myself left cold by instrumental music that on the surface I’m impressed by, but which doesn’t seem to soundtrack any part of my life, does reflect anything about the way I think or see the world. And I think I know why…

The big problem with most of what gets lumped together as ‘fusion’ or ‘electric jazz’ is that the way the music is played makes it sound like the artist has all the answers. Like there’s no search, no journey, just an arrival point. And that arrival point is one of dexterity and chops, with the compositions often stemming from a similar place. Or even with the compositions actually being pretty deep, but still being played from a position of having it all sown up before the tune starts.

Great singers never do that. They tell stories, the adopt characters, they emote according to the narrative. They often sing like they are discovering for the first time the unfolding tale of the song. It’s way more important to communicate than it is to show of their wikkid skillz. Having a big range in your voice is part of the singers emotional palette, and is rarely used for shredding (Maria/Celine etc. aside…)

So it’s no coincidence that my favourite instrumentalists also play like that. Bill Frisell is a fantastic case in point – a phenomenally gifted guitar player, who has leant his wide ranging guitar skills to a whole load of different projects, but who always digs deep emotionally. He plays guitar like a world-weary country singer, or a heart-broken torch singer. He does the full range of emotions, rather than sticking with the slightly smug, self-satisfied gymnastic displays of many instrumentalists.

Nels Cline is the same – he can be sad, angry, playful, child-like, inquisitive, tearful, tender… all in the same solo.

And of course there’s John Coltrane, the Godfather of story telling improvisors, unfolding the story of his spiritual quest on the stage each night via his sax. Phenomenal technical skill, completely at the service of the music, or the story, and always stretching, searching, telling stories as they occured to him, risking the blind allies, crying and screaming through his music when it was required.

Q – “So how do I as a bassist head in that direction? What are the mechanics of feeling? How do I move away from dextrous but lifeless technical cleverness and start telling stories?”

The start point is listening and a little analysis. Take a singer you love, a singer that moves you, a singer that connects – what are they ACTUALLY doing? What’s happening in terms of dynamics and phrasing? Where do the notes sit on the beat? Take 16 bars that you really like and learn them. Start by singing them, then play what you sing. Not just the notes, but the dynamics, phrasing, articulation. The whole works. As close as you can get. How far is that from how you usually play?

Here are a few musical elements that aid us in sounding a little more ambiguous, discursive, narrative:

  • stop playing everything on the beat: Bassists are the worst for this, but a lot of jazzers too – we end up drawing a metric grid in our minds and stick to it. Divide the bar into 8/16/32 and play those subdivisions. Go and have a listen to Joni Mitchell and tell me how often she’s on the beat. How often her phrasing is metric. Pretty much never.
  • Start using dynamics: I’m amazed at how few melody players in jazz – particularly guitarists and bassists – rarely vary the dynamics of what they do.Have a listen to this Bartok solo sonata for violin – hear what’s being done with the phrasing and dynamics? It’s incredible.

    Alternatively, have a listen to Sinatra, to the way he pulled the melodies around, and used his amazing control of dynamics. Remarkable stuff. In the rock world, check out Doug Pinnick’s vocals with King’s X. He’s closer to singing in time, but exploits the variation in being ahead of or behind the beat beautifully to spell out the emotion of a song.

  • Vary your technique – again, very few singers sing in one ‘tone’ through everything. Those that do usually get tiresome pretty quick. Most of them use tonal variety the way we do when we talk. Getting louder will vary the tone automatically. Same with your instrument. The number of bassists who play with their thumb planted on top of the pickup, using their first two fingers in strict alternation even for playing tunes is bizarre. Bassmonkeys, Your right hand is your primary tone control – forget EQing, and work with the source, where the subtle variations are from note to note. moment to moment, phrase to phrase. Experiment, keeping in mind what you’re trying to do – tell a story!
  • Play less notes – At NAMM every year, I get other bassists – often pretty famous ones – coming up and asking me how I play so ‘soulfully’, or so ‘deeply’ or whatever. Admittedly, their reaction to what I do is going to be exaggerated by the lunacy of all the shredding going on, but the simplest answer is often that I play less notes than most of what they are used to listenin to. Again, it’s a singer-thing. Very few of my favourite vocal melodies are technically hard to play. Some have some pretty big intervals in them (Jonatha Brooke, one of my favourite singer/songwriters on the planet, writes some of the most amazing melodies, and has an incredible way of delivering them. She uses really unusual intervals but never sounds like the cleverness of the tune is getting in the way of what’s being said…) So just learn some vocal tunes. Actually, not just ‘some’, learn loads! Get deep into what singers do. Take songs and listen closely to how the tune develops from one verse to the next. Again, great story tellers adapt the phrasing to the emotion of the story, they don’t feel the need to add more and more notes as it goes on…
  • Play simply… even the super fast stuff! – the genius of Coltrane was that he very rarely sounded like he was struggling with his sax. He was wrestling with music, and emotion through his sax, he was digging deep to find the soundtrack to his inner journey, but his horn was at the service of that journey, not directing it in a ‘check out this clever shit’ way. Dexterity is a wonderful thing. There’s nothing at all wrong with being able to sing or play really fast. It’s just that it’s not an end in and of itself. Some things sound fantastic when you play them really fast. There are tracks by Michael Manring and Matthew Garrison that have an incredible energy rush to them because of the pace. They wouldn’t have that if they were slower. But neither player sounds like the tunes are a vehicle for a load of mindless shredding. Im always looking to improve my technique by deepening it. Speed is definitely part of that. But it’s just one aspect of control. And control is the key.

I find it really odd when I hear musicians that site Miles Davis as a big influence and then proceed to play like the entire story of the tune was set in stone years ago. Like there’s nothing to add, nowhere new to go, no need to dig deep. Miles is the Yin to Coltrane’s Yang. Miles was a pretty good be-bop trumpeter in the late 40s/early 50s, but he didn’t really have the chops of Dizzie or Chet Baker. And yet he had a quality to his playing, even on crazy-fast bebop stuff, that drew you in, that took you with him… That got deeper and deeper as his life went on. With a cracked and broken sound, he told stories, and wrung out old melodies to find new tales. He also never went backwards, constantly searching for new things in music. The narrative of each solo was reflected in the meta-narrative of the arc of his career. No resting on laurels, lots of progressive work, and not a few false starts along the way. But he was integral to just about every new thing that happened in jazz from the early 50s onwards.

We need to dig deep to find this stuff. It’s not something you just do. Its not something easy, it’s not a lick you can learn and regurgitate, or a solo by such and such a player that you can transcribe. It’s a desire and a search and a longing to tell stories that comes out in our playing, that shapes the way we practice, the kind of musicians we choose to work with, and the risks we take. If you want some inspiration, try looking up some of the following on last.fm:

Guitarists: Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, David Torn, Mark Ribot
Bassists: Michael Manring, Matthew Garrison, Gary Peacock, Charlie Haden
Pianists: Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Jez Carr, Alan Pasqua
Singer/songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Gillian Welch, Jonatha Brooke, Lobelia, David Sylvian, Kelly Joe Phelps, Robert Smith (The Cure), Frank Black (The Pixies)

Music is about way more than impressing other musicians. There’s nothing wrong with musicians being impressed by what you do, any more than there’s anything wrong with people thinking you’ve got a cute accent when you talk… but what you say is what will sustain the value in the long run… Dig deep.

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…

Lee Sklar interview from Bassist Mag, Oct 99

One of my favourite things about going out to NAMM each January is getting to see Lee Sklar – if you’re a bass player you obviously already know who he is. If you’re not a bassist, you might recognise Lee as the guy that played bass with James Taylor and Phil Collins who looks like the Farside version of God.

He’s a bona fide bass legend, has defined how the rest of us approach playing with singer/songwriters, but has covered so many other styles, including playing on Billy Cobham’s classic fusion record, Spectrum.

Interviewing Lee back in 99 was a real pleasure, and an honour, and since then we’ve become friends, and always catch up for a chat a NAMM. He’s on tour with Toto at the moment – if you go and see them play and get to say hi after the show, please pass on my best!

here’s the interview – enjoy!

—o0o—

Lee Sklar Interview

(Reproduced from the October 1999 issue of Bassist Magazine)

Few faces are as instantly recognisable within the bass world as Lee Sklar. The same is definitely true of his playing. With more than 30 years and 2000 albums behind him, Lee’s sound has graced more hit records than almost anyone.

Aside from being a hired gun, Lee is best known for his long standing musical relationships with Phil Collins and James Taylor. Indeed, it was the gig with James that proved to be Lee’s ticket into music full time back in the late 60s.

“I was in a lot of local bands in LA, including a band called Wulfgang,” recalls Lee. “James auditioned as the singer but wasn’t what we were looking for – we needed someone somewhere between Sam ‘n’ Dave and Robert Plant! James blew me away but just wasn’t right.

“About a year later, James asked me to do a gig, which I immediately agreed to. We did two gigs at one venue – the first was before ‘Fire and Rain’ and the place was so empty you could drive a truck through it. At the second show, the place was packed, and we knew we were onto something! So a gig which initially looked like being one or two shows ended up being 20 years.”

So was it working with James that opened the door to session work?

“Yeah. It’s funny, I’ve always considered myself a band guy. I was an art student in college and I still think I’m a better sculpture than musician. Music was just a weekend hobby – I had no intention of becoming a studio musician. I was really shocked when I started getting calls to play on people’s records.”

Unlike many bassists, it’s impossible to label the one kind of music that you get called for – your CV is so diverse. How did that come about?

“I don’t really know – I feel really fortunate to have just got the calls! I guess that once I came to the realisation that I was a studio musician, I discovered that the most essential aspect is having really wide ears, embracing all styles.”

Has that always been your approach?

“Not at all! I started playing classical piano at four years old and was still a complete classical music snob when I started studying upright bass – all orchestral stuff. I wasn’t into Elvis or the Beach Boys – I was into Gershwin and Copeland. It was a different world. Then the first time I heard the Beatles’I was an usher at the Hollywood Bowl the first time they played there – Paul changed my life! (laughs)

“When I got into the studio scene, I found myself getting all kinds of calls. One minute I’m doing Helen Reddy’s ‘I Am Woman’, and the next thing I know I’m doing ‘Spectrum’ with Billy Cobham. The calls would come in and I’d just look at everything as a challenge.

Have you ever turned down a session?

“Occasionally – I’ve had a huge amount of wrist injuries, so I can’t play thumb-popping (slap) style – I don’t have the dexterity to deal with it. So when people call me to do that, I put them in touch with friends I have – I’d rather see other guys working, and I’ll just come hang out.

“I also don’t play upright anymore. I was doing a project where I was using a Washburn 5 string fretless to get an upright sound, but they had a couple of songs where they wanted real upright and I said ‘call Patitucci’ – it was when he was still living in LA – and I went down and hung out at the sessions with John.

“I’ve always tried to understand my limitations so I try to find out ahead of time what they want on the session. The one main thing I’ve cultivated is a real sensitivity to singer/songwriters. I know how to accompany, and how to listen to a person breathe to hear where the down beat is – to never try to lead them. I’m really comfortable on that seat – I’ve never considered myself a virtuoso. It’s like going to the NAMM show and listening to all the guys with the monstrous chops – I’ve never considered myself that. I’m happy when people say I’m ‘king of the whole note’ – I really value that position as a bass player. I’ve done fusion, but I like being an accompanist.”

From a listener’s point of view, it sounds like you spot the holes, and never play across the vocal?

“I think it just requires listening and one of the problems that a lot of players have is that they don’t listen. Don’t get me wrong, I admire the tenacity that it takes to develop NAMM show chops – you see all these guys that have these different gifts and it’s fantastic. But I’m just one of these people that if I’m doing a recording and they ask for a bass solo I say I’d rather hear another song in that space, and I’ve heard some of the greatest soloists in the world play. I can enjoy it for a bit but I’m really a song person – maybe an element of it is laziness on my part. I grew up in an era where you were hired as an accompanist, even if you were doing a metal project. I really believe in the song.”

I assume that that sets producers at ease?

“Not only the producer, but I often get hired because the artist feels like they’re going to be comfortable with the extra room to breath. Guys get so used to ‘time’ that they don’t really understand that you can have a beautiful pause before a verse, because you’re human! Don’t do all your training with a metronome, try to understand what it is to really feel a song. Don’t be afraid to leave that kind of space. That’s what I’ve always liked about Asian thinking, the importance of space, allowing things not to be there.

“I did a clinic at the Bass Centre in LA a few years ago, and it scared the crap out of me. I only agreed to it as a non-playing clinic – most of the guys there were sleeping with their basses and waking up and playing them – that’s what I was like at that age, too. Anyway, they got to talking about how boring it must be to play country cos there’s not much going on. And I said a whole note is much more difficult to do than 32nd notes, which only demands proficiency. If someone gives you one note to do in a bar, there’s a whole lot more responsibility – where do you drop that note? Do you put a little vibrato on it? Which string do you play it on for tonal quality? When do you lift off? Do you mute it with your hand? They were all looking at me saying ‘geez we just thought it was boring!’

After so many tours and albums, do you still have any unfulfilled ambitions?

“I would like to get back and start sculpting again. I haven’t done it for a long time now, just because the music has occupied such a large part of my life. I’m going to be 52 years old this year, and you’d think at this point in my life that maybe things will start to slow down but I’m still as busy as ever! I’ve been working with artists from Mexico, Japan, Thailand and France; I’m musical director on a TV show, I’ve got sessions coming up with Barbra Streisand. It’s amazing to me that I’m still getting all these calls. My ambition is just to keep doing what I do. I just really enjoy getting up and going to work and playing with guys that I like playing with. That and enjoying my home life – my family, my pets, my garden, building cars. I feel like a big pie, and music is a slice of the pie but not the whole pie. It impacts everything else I do, but I don’t have to be playing every day to feel I’m a valuable person.”

In Defense Of REAL Musicians!

After 30 years in the industry, having seen recording technology blossom from the days when a four track was state of the art to what we have now – how has that changed it for players like yourself?

“Firstly, I’m all in favour of technology – I don’t want to be living in the stone age – but one of the biggest problems with technology is that it’s become so good that it’s allowed people into this business that should never have been in it. With Pro-Tools and such like, you’ve got singers that can’t sing to save their lives and engineers whose whole careers are spent tuning bad singers. You’ve got a drummer with no time, so you move the beat. As far as I’m concerned if the guy doesn’t swing, fire him – let him serve french fries in McDonald’s, but don’t let him get in a studio, because there are too many great players trying to get into that seat. That aspect of technology I find really disconcerting.

“Every once in a while I work on things and I feel like I’m in the old days. We got so used to that – going into sessions with Jim Gordon, or Jim Keltner and the pocket was so strong! Everything was based on ensemble playing, whereas nowadays, at least half the work I do, I’m just overdubbing to sequenced bass and they want it to feel natural, but you’re already handcuffed by the fact that this was done to a sequencer and they want you to make it breath a little bit and I think: why don’t they just put a rhythm section together and do this???? People are afraid – they want to keep as much control and money as they can, and are afraid to let a bunch of guys come in and actually play something. I’ve worked with people and we’ve had to make their records that way and suddenly we’ll do a gig and the first time the band plays the song it’s a hundred times better than the record and they’re wondering why! It’s because we’re all putting personality into the tunes.”

Lee’s gear

Working in such diverse situations requires quite a few different tools – here’s a list of the current Sklar arsenal [current as of Oct 99!] –

1. A Fender(ish) 4 string bass – “It has Charvel alder body, two EMG P-Bass pickups in Jazz position, but reversed, a Badass Bridge, a Hipshot D-Tuner, and mandolin fretwork.”
2 Dingwall 5-string “bitchin’!”
3 Yamaha TRB5 fretless
4 Washburn AB45(s?) acoustic fretless
5 Tubeworks DI
6 Euphonic Audio 2×8″ and 2×10″ speaker cabs.
7 Walter Woods amp
8 GK 1200 combo amp
9 Boss Octave pedal (‘my rack consists of this one pedal!’)
10 GHS Super Steel Strings 40-102.

That’s a fair amount of gear, but as the man says – “It’s still the same old me at the helm so what the hell!?”

Amazing bass tuition opportunity in the UK…

Here’s a bit of a heads up for you UK bass-heads – have a look at bassmasterclass.com – it’s a new venture by a very resourceful chap called Kofi Boafo, who is running a series of weekend bass masterclasses, starting with one that I have great pleasure in recommending – Todd Johnson – Todd is THE ONLY person I’ve had a bass lesson from in the last 15 years, since I left music college. I heard Todd play in a trio with Jimmy Haslip at NAMM in about 2002 and was blown away by his jazz knowledge and ability to comp chords and walk bass at the same time. Since then, he’s put out a gorgeous record with singer/bassist Kristin Korb and a series of fantastic DVDs on beginning jazz walking bass. He’s great, he’s a lovely man, and is a born teacher.

I’m in discussions at the moment about some StevieClasses in the near future, but for now, you REALLY should go and see the site check out the stuff about the 40% discount (!!) for Todd’s weekend, and go and be inspired. He’s great. Seriously.