An Interview with Steve Lawson

wheat's picture

Abstract:

Steve Lawson
photo © Steve Brown, www.stevebrownphoto.co.uk
Steve Lawson is well known for his work as a solo bassist and his expressive
playing on both fretted and fretless six-string basses. He has released six
CDs focussing on the bass in solo and duo contexts, often creatively employing
looping technology. The latest of these,
Behind Every Word,
was released June 19, 2006. Steve (SL) and I (WB) conducted this interview
through a series of emails during the week of July 17-21, 2006. We discussed
his solo albums, his approach to bass a solo instrument, his influences,
and the independent role he has created for himself. [My apologies to Steve for Americanizing his spellings in the final draft.]

Body:
WB: First off, Steve, I'd like to thank you for taking time out of
your schedule to sit down and talk with us here at bassplaying.com. I know you
have a lot of fans here, and I really admire the work you've done to carve out
a space for bass as a solo instrument.

SL: Thanks very much! That's very kind of you.

WB: Tell us a little about yourself and how you got started playing
bass. Where did you grow up? Did you play other instruments before finding your
way to the bass?

SL: I grew up in Wimbledon, London--better known for tennis than for
bassists! I started out there on violin, then trumpet, and somewhere in there
tried piano and guitar, but was supremely rubbish at all of them. It wasn't until
my family moved to Berwick Upon Tweed, in the far north of England when I was
thirteen, that I bought a bass from a local school teacher and started to play
in a band with the drummer that lived in the house next door.

From there on it, bass, just felt like 'home' in a way that no other
instrument had. I was really bad at it for a few years--I didn't take to playing
it naturally at all--but I really felt at home with the role of bass player, and
loved the sound, far more than guitar.

WB: As a session player and in your solo work, your music draws on
many styles. Is there a style or genre of music that you feel most comfortable
playing?

SL: Strangely, for a bass player, I've got really comfortable playing
without a drummer, so I really like situations where it's just me and a singer,
or me and a singer/guitarist. On the flip side of that, I love getting down and
playing soul, funk, and disco with a great band. I very occasionally do
'function' gigs--weddings, corporate stuff, etc.--and really look forward to
them 'cause I get to play like that with some incredible musicians. I guess,
actually, that rather than being comfortable with certain styles, I'm
comfortable with certain musicians and a certain approach to playing music.
I love playing either wholly or partially improvised music, and there are a
whole range of players that I choose from for those kind of gigs, regardless of
style. I'm happy playing everything from ambient to full on metal, but it all
depends on the players, not the style.

WB: What originally inspired you to approach the bass as a solo
instrument?

SL: I think there there are two kinds of people in the world 'Why?'
people and 'Why not?' people. I had a bass, and couldn't see any good reason for
it not to be a solo instrument. I was kicked out of my first band when I broke
my arm and couldn't play properly for about 5 months. So after that I spent a
lot of time sat at home with a bass and a distortion pedal, playing stuff by
The Pixies,
The Jesus and Mary Chain,
and The Cure. Just playing
combined bass and guitar parts, enjoying myself. So when I discovered fusion,
jazz and progressive stuff, it all fell into place to try and play it all on
bass.

When I got to music college, I had a decision to make. I could either work
hard at my singing and keyboard lessons, and learn to do a bit of everything,
or I could focus on making the bass my 'voice', on doing everything I want to
do in music on bass. I chose the latter, and everything that's happened since
has been as a direct consequence of that decision.

WB: I've always found it strange that bass is one of the few
instruments you can play where people don't expect you to be able to play lead
or melody parts as well as be able to accompany others in a more supporting role.
A pianist who could only chord but couldn't take a lead wouldn't expect to find
many gigs. Yet for the bass to have a role other than a purely supporting one
seems to surprise--or even offend--some people. In jazz--even trad jazz--the
bass has always had a chance to step out and take a turn at improvising. Yet in
most rock, metal, and pop it still seems like something new.

SL: Well, Jazzers can be just as closed minded in their rejection of
electric bass in favour of upright. How anyone who's ever heard Todd Johnson
play can suggest that electric bass doesn't have a place in mainstream jazz is
beyond me.

But yes, I'm a musician who plays bass--being 'a bassist' is fun, but it's a
subset of what I do as a musician, not its entirety, even if bass is my only
instrument.

WB: Your most recent release,
Behind Every Word,
is your fourth album emphasizing the bass as a solo instrument. Since your very
first release as a leader, you've been focusing on the bass in solo and duo
contexts. Has your approach to solo bass grown and changed over the course of
your releases?

SL: I don't think my approach has grown as much as my ability. The
one thing that amazes me when I listen to my first album is that the concept is
the same now as it was then--the big difference is that I'm a better writer, a
better improvisor and a better bassist. But the approach, the vibe, is still
there.

My abilities as a collaborator in a 'duo + looping' setting are also
improving, and getting more sophisticated, largely, of late, due to the huge
possibilities presented to me by the Looperlative looper that I'm now using,
which is just incredible.

WB: What do you say to those who see the bass as a purely supportive
instrument-those who accuse any bassist who takes a lead as suffering from
guitar envy?

SL: This isn't meant to sound nasty, but there aren't really enough
hours in the day to bother answering people who say that. If I was feeling a
little more gracious I'd attempt to highlight the difference between 'the
bassist in a band' as a role and 'electric bass' the instrument, which is just
a lump of wood and strings and magnets (and graphite!) that makes a noise. If
the noise is good, it's good; if the noise is bad, it's bad. There are no other
relevant criteria in music. It's all about what comes out of the speakers.

The problem with a question like that is that so many people experimenting
with solo play as though they have something to prove about the instrument--
'I'd better play really fast and really impress everyone for my solo efforts to
be worthwhile.' And that's just bollocks. Music, for me, is all about
story-telling. If your music sounds like the title of the story it's
sound-tracking is just 'look at me' or 'check me out,' then chances are it's
really not going to do it for me. It's not that I don't like clever bass
playing--Michael Manring is one of my favourite musicians on the planet and has
the most advanced technical conception of the bass of anyone that I have ever
seen--no, it's about what you play for. I think it was Ellis Marsalis who told
his son Wynton 'If you play for applause, that's all you're going to get.' I
write music to soundtrack the world as I see it. Concerns about whether such and
such a thing can be done on such and such an instrument are so far from being
relevant it's not even funny.

Does it move you? Does it inspire you? Does it make you laugh? Does it make
you want to dance? Those are the kind of questions I ask of music, not 'is it
faster than I can play?' or 'is it unlike any other bassist I've ever heard?'

WB: I hit your last.fm page
and was happy to see that, in addition to bass-centric music like
Michael Manring, you also listen to quite
a bit of 80s pop music. I liked that, as it's to all too easy to focus on one
genre to the exclusion of all others. Who are some of your favorite artists?

SL: I listen to very little bass-centric music. There are a handful
of really really great musicians for whom bass is their voice - Michael's top
of the tree, but also Trip Wamsley,
Mo Foster,
Tony Levin,
Jeff Schmidt,
Doug Wimbish,
Victor Wooten,
Todd Johnson,
Matthew Garrison,
Seth Horan,
John Lester,
Jonas Hellborg
and some others, but for the most part, the dominant musical approach to solo
bass is just not something that stylistically jives with me.

So what I spend my time listening to tends to be singer/songwriters like
Jonatha Brooke,
Bruce Cockburn,
Joni Mitchell,
Paul Simon,
Tom Waits,
Randy Newman,
James Taylor,
John Martyn,
Kris Delmhorst,
David Sylvian,
Juliet Turner,
Julie Lee,
and then a whole load of great pop bands:
The Cure,
Duran Duran,
Coldplay,
Athlete,
Talk Talk,
Del Amitri,
Prefab Sprout,
Scritti Politti,
Talking Heads,
The Pixies,
Green Day...
I could go on and on.
I guess my approach to music is like my approach to musicians--it's not about
style as much as it is about whether it fits the way I see 'the story.' All this
stuff is the soundtrack to my life, and that's going to need everything from
Kings X and
The Foo Fighters
through to Harry Partch
and Olivier Messiaen.
So there's something of everything in there, but my default setting is
singer/songwriters.

WB: You're very active on the internet. How important has the net
been to your solo career?

SL: Pretty much vital. There's very little that has happened to me
that hasn't been positively influenced by the web.
My site has always been very busy, and I've
always enjoyed chatting about bass stuff with people on various forums. There
just aren't enough hours in the day to keep track of all of them though, sadly!
And now with things like MySpace and
YouTube, there are more ways of connecting with
an audience without leaving the house.

Having said that, it's a huge mistake that a lot of musicians make that
mucking about on line is somehow a replacement for getting out and doing
gigs. And it isn't.

WB: Though you're known mostly for your solo bass work, you've also
done a fair amount of session work. Do you have any thoughts on how those roles
differ and how to successfully move from one to the other?

SL: The difference is who I'm trying to please. If I'm being hired
for a session, there are two very distinct camps--am I being hired to sound
like me on someone else's project, or am I just the skilled bassist being
brought in to do bass things in a number of different styles so they can decide
what they want? Those two are worlds apart.

And then playing my own music is another world. On my music my own concern is
how well the music reflects what's going on in my world. I'm not really all that
bothered about what other people think of it. Of course, I hope that people
enjoy it and buy the CDs and come to the gigs so I can carry on playing the
music, but once a CD is finished I already know what I think of it, and whether
it does what I want it to do. That's not the case with a session. Someone else
is very much in the position of deciding what's good enough and what isn't,
what's right for the track and what isn't, and I really enjoy that process of
trying to understand what it is that's required in a particular situation and
then apply my musical ability to the task. It's a great feeling when the person
hiring you is happy with the end result!

WB: Your solo recordings have all been released on your own record
label, Pillow Mountain Records.
Have you been happy with the decision to go the independent route? What do you
see as the strengths of that path?

SL: I'm totally happy with the decision. There are such a small
number of solo bassists in the world making any money at it, that the chances
of me finding a record company that could market what I do well enough for me
to make enough to live and for them to make enough to make it worthwhile are
very small indeed. This way, I'm in control, I decide what money gets spent
and what doesn't, I design the CDs, do the promo, and I am totally responsible
for everything that happens.

There really is so little money in record deals these days, I can't see why
anyone would bother.

WB: Do you do the recording yourself as well, or do you lease out
studio time?

SL: I record everything in my home studio. Technology is at the
point now where it can be done, and done well. I'm sure if I went into Abbey
Road, you'd hear the difference in the sound quality, but what I wouldn't have
is time. And that for me is the most important thing, to have the time to get
the good takes, to find the music that says what I'm trying to say. For that
I'm willing to miss out the £6000 mic preamps and do the recording at home.

WB: Let's focus on the bass itself for a few minutes. How long have
you been playing six string basses? When and why did you make the jump from
four-string instruments?

SL: I got my first 6 string in Sept 1999. I'd been planning on
getting a new bass for a while, had been getting more and more into playing my
Modulus VJazz, and really liked
the shape and design of the
Oteil Burbridge
signature bass, so I thought it'd be fun to combine the two and come up with
a design for my fretless. Which I did, and ordered it from Modulus. It took
months from start to finish, but when I got it was delighted with it. I think
this was another 'why not' decision. I'd played 6 string basses in shops, and
they felt good, the ergonomics of the Modulus necks in particular made sense to
me and I liked the idea of pursuing the possibilities of both the fretless and
the 6 string. I'd seen Alain Caron give a clinic at the Bass Centre in London,
and was really interested in some of the things he was doing on 6 string
fretless as well.

WB: Are you a 'lined' or 'unlined' guy when it comes to fretless?

SL: Definitely lined, every time. I can see absolutely no good
reason whatsoever for having an unlined fretless. It'd a discussion that comes
up online pretty often, and my answer is always the same--in almost 20 years
of playing bass, 12 of those as a pro player, and 13 as a teacher, the
overwhelming anecdotal evidence has been that fretless players with lines are
more consistently in tune than those without. Why make life hard for yourself?
Why disable your playing when all that really matters is what comes out of the
speakers. No one listens to a record and reserves judgement on the intonation
until they've read about whether the bassist uses lines or not. It's either in
tune or it's not. In tune = good, out of tune = bad. Simple as.

WB: What role does the four-string bass still have any role in your
work? Did you ever flirt with five-string basses? Or did you jump straight to
the six?

SL: I still play 4 string bass most days. I love my four string, and
have it set up as a 'stunt-bass'--low action, light strings, for all the
clever-clever stuff! My Modulus Q4 sounds amazing, and very different from
either of my Modulus 6 strings.

I've got a Rick Turner 5
string fretless 'amplicoustic' bass, which sounds unbelievable. Rick's a bass
building genius, and after
Leo Fender, probably the
single most important figure in the development of the instrument, and I love
that bass! i don't get to use it very often, as it has a very specific tone,
but when the track calls for it, nothing else will do.

WB: When did you make the jump to fretless and then six-string
fretless?

SL: I got my first fretless when I was asked to record a session on
fretless! I rang Modulus and asked them to send over a four string - they'd just
got distribution in the UK, and I was writing for a bass mag so I could review
it as well as then using it on the session. I did the session, which went well,
and fell in love with playing fretless. It's just so expressive, the way you get
to shape the note so much more than with a fretted instrument. It very quickly
became my voice, so when I ordered my new bass from Modulus, it made sense for
it to be fretless too!

WB: Is six strings going to be enough for you? If we do an interview
again in a year or two, will you have moved on to 7-string or 9-string fretless
basses?

SL: Thus far, I've never played a bass with more than 6 string that
made any ergonomic sense to me. There are some people making great music with
7/8/9 string basses--Trip Wamsley,
Jean Baudin, and
Jimmy Haslip, to name
three--but they just don't suit me, and I've never ever felt the need for the
sounds that I've heard other people getting with them. I also don't own a hi-fi
that could reproduce anything lower than a low B, and my ears struggle to
discern pitch lower than that, so can't really see the point in going lower.
If I wanted to, I think I'd just use the pitch shift in my Lexicon!

WB: Well, let's focus on gear for a few minutes. You play Modulus
basses. Are they stock?

SL: None of my three Moduluses are stock. My four string was stock
when I bought it, but I've since swapped the pick-ups for
Lane Poors and
had the Ferarri red finish stripped off and a flame maple top added instead, by
Martin Peterson of Sei Bass in London.
He's an amazing bass builder and the best bass repair guy I've ever come across.

My 6-string fretless is a custom job for me. It's got Lane Poor pickups
and an East-UK U-Retro preamp, as well
as a custom inlay.

The fretted bass is total one-off, with a carved top. It sounds like no
other bass I've ever heard, and they've not made another one yet as it took a
very long time to carve out the wood for the top, and it just wouldn't make
economic sense for them to do too many of those!

Both the 6 strings are strung with a custom flatwound string set by
Bass Centre Elites, which are supposed to be coming out some time as a
signature set.

WB: How about amps and cabs?

SL: I'm using AccuGroove
cabinets, which are just incredible. I play my hi-fi through them most of the
time at home, and when I'm doing gigs with a singer or a sax or whatever, I
put that through them - they're basically amazing PA speakers optimized for
bass guitar! I've not come across another bass cab that can get close, really.
There are lots of bass cabs that sound great for bass, but with the looping and
processing, I need something with a wider less obviously colored range.
AccuGrooves are that cab.

I power them with a QSC poweramp,
which my rack runs into. The rack contains two
Lexicon MPX-G2s, a
[Korg] Kaoss Pad,
The Looperlative and a
Mackie desk! It's pretty complex, but
sounds killer.

WB: You've recently started using-and had a hand in developing-the
Looperlative audio looping system.
How does this product compare with tools you've used in the past for looping?

SL: The Looperlative is, for me, the most advanced hardware looper
so far. Every other looper I've ever used has been just one mono channel,
which was then manipulatable to varying degrees. The Looperlative has 8 stereo
channels, all of which can be synced or unsynced to each other in any
combination. The sampling rate is better than anything I've had before, and
the feature set is amazing. What's more, it's constantly evolving, as there's
an ethernet port on the back so you can keep downloading the new software
upgrades as they happen, for free! It's brilliant.

WB: That sounds amazing. How do you control such a beast live? It
seems like you'd have a fairly extensive foot controller to manage such a
versatile tool.

SL: It's very easy to control--I've got a
Rolls MIDI Wizard, which
just sends program change messages, and those I can assign to anything as the
Looperlative has MIDI learn built in. I've also got two expression pedals
hooked up to the MIDI Wizard, which control feedback and volume.

WB: You're also a bass educator. What sort of skills do you think
are essential for new players--people just starting out on the bass--to
practice? And what would you say to those who would like to follow in your
footsteps and find their own voices as solo bassists?

SL: Hmmm, essential skills? Getting your hands in the right place
really helps! I'm amazed at how many bassists handicap themselves by having
really bad right and left hand positioning, making playing so much harder
than it needs to be. Developing your ability to play in time and to control
time is also vital. Playing in time doesn't just mean sticking to a metronome,
it means being in control of it in an organic way--knowing where time should
ebb and flow, where things need to be pushed, and where they need to hold back.
Knowing where you need to lead a drummer or where you need to follow.

Theory-wise, understanding how chords stack up in a particular key is the
single most important thing. I'm amazed by how many bassists practice one and
two octave scale patterns over and over without ever thinking that there's
virtually no music that they're ever going to have to play that requires
them to do that. Bass lines very rarely include long sections of running up
and down scales. Instead, in most pop/rock/funk/soul music they outline the
harmony or play the riff, which more often that not is derived from a chord
progression, or a pentatonic scale.

There's nothing wrong with scales per se, but the focus that most players
give them is entirely out of proportion to the amount of time they spend
practicing them. Understanding how scales relate to keys is vital, playing
them over two octaves with a metronome at 200bpm is pretty much pointless for
most bassists.

WB: I'm always trying to encourage bassists to learn scales in the
context of chords. It seems a lot of them set out to learn the two separately,
as if they had nothing in common. And, generally, they start with scales and
will be working their way through an entire syllabus of them without knowing
which chords even the most basic of them might match. The point of learning
scales, it has always struck me, is to learn the available notes that are
going to be 'safe' over any particular chord--not as something to run up and
down in endless academic exercises.

SL: I think it's even more than that--the scale IS the chord--those
are the notes in the extended chord. There isn't really any such thing as a
passing note, in one sense--they all impact the harmony. If you play a phrygian
mode over an E minor chord, you're outlining a flat 9 and a b13. Those are
there. If you change the note set, you change the harmony. The problem with
scales for me--and it seems to be the thing that confuses people--is the
linearity of them. Harmony isn't a linear concept. Chords have a bass note,
then everything else. Beyond the bass note being the lowest note, everything
else is just colour. The order of the notes doesn't affect the chord at all
after that, they just 'are.' Scales seem to suggest that playing the notes
in a particular order is of some great significance, when it clearly isn't.

And it's vital, utterly vital, to remember that what you practice is what
comes out when you play for real. So practice for real, don't practice
practicing. There's no point in being good at exercises. The exercise has to
be about entraining a real principle in a real context. No context, no point.

WB: Do you see your role as a teacher having an influence your
role as a player?

SL: Absolutely. Teaching forces you to rationalize what you do, to
explain it to yourself before you explain it to anyone else, and also to come
up with answers to other people's bass problems which end up answering your
own. I'm as much a student of music as I am a teacher of it, and learn so much
by having to negotiate other people's musical obstacles for them. I think
philosophically, I'm as much as teacher as I am a performer. It's a huge part
of who I am.

WB: Well, that's all the questions I have, Steve. I want to thank
you again for taking time out of your schedule to talk with us here at
bassplaying.com. We wish you continued success and look forward to hearing
more from you.

SL: Thanks very much - a most enjoyable interview!


You can learn more about Steve Lawon at his website:
stevelawson.net

Comments

BoH's picture

Great Stuff, Wheat!

Great content. I have grown to appreciate what Steve is doing. I've messaged him on MySpace and AB a couple of times and found him to be a genuinely nice person. Thanks for your efforts.

Bo


Low B, or not low B? That is the question!

Bo


You don't love me, you just love my FINGERSTYLE!
Peavey T40; SX/Squier P-bass; Spector Legend 5
Roland Bass 30 Cube

wheat's picture

I dig his stuff

Thanks, Bo. I really dig Steve's playing. It's beautiful music. I like everything I've heard off Grace and Gratitude. I was really glad that he was willing to do an interview for the site. I really enjoyed working with him on this interview.

Wheat

bassplaying.com

Very Enjoyable

Thanks Wheat, I really enjoyed this interview. Bassplaying.com is off to a great start. His comments about scales were an excellent contrast to what other players/teachers will say. I found his views on scales refreshing. Don't get me wrong, I couldn't play without them, I just enjoyed his comments. Great job on your questioning as well.

Pete

Hazz's picture

Yes I can admit it, I had no

Yes I can admit it, I had no idea who Stve was until he dropped me a line on my space. Since then though, I have found his music insparational and very easy to listen to.

I would have to agree with Pete on the scales as well. Steve is the first musician that I have heard speak of scales in the manner he does. Now if I could only find a local instructor that follows the same outlook it would be great.

Thnks WHEAT, GREAT interview.
HAZ

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