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Steve Lawson - March 2002

The U.K.'s Steve Lawson is one of today's most inventive and original sounding voices on the electric bass. He is a pioneering innovator in the art of looping. On his debut solo outing, And Nothing But The Bass, Lawson reveals his technical brilliance through multi-layered sonic excursions and artistic expressions of improvisation wizardry. With only his basses and a handful of electronic gadgets, Lawson paints progressive textures of ambient soundscapes. Over the past couple years, he has performed his solo bass orchestrations from London to L.A.. You may have already caught Steve in one of his many performances as a clinician for Ashdown Amplification, on stage at a looping festival, or at a recent NAMM show. As a member of a solo bass looping trio with fellow bass virtuoso Michael Manring, Lawson has toured the California coast and made many solo stops along the way. Lawson is also the founder of "The Solo Bass Network" and a strong advocate of all things bass.

In this interview, Steve chats with us over a lengthy list of subjects including his earliest solo bass influences, equipment, his debut solo bass project, And Nothing But The Bass, upcoming releases, practicing, looping, "The Solo Bass Network", teaching, touring, and much more!

Steve Lawson For those bassists that may not yet be familiar with you, could you give us some background information on yourself?

I was born in Wimbledon, London in 1972. Now I'm back in London, having lived "up north" for quite a few years in between, including a couple of years at music college and a couple of years touring around Europe with a Canadian gospel singer/songwriter. I come from a fairly musical family, where my mum, brother, and sister all play "a bit" of whatever their chosen instrument is, but I'm the only professional.

Tell us about your musical history. When did you become involved with music? Was electric bass your first instrument?

No, I started on violin. Well, actually I tried one song on the piano and was crap. Then, my mum showed me an E chord and a G chord on acoustic guitar when I was about 9, and I couldn't hear the difference! (who says musicality is innate?) After that I tried violin for a while and trumpet and was unequivocably appalling at both of them, having no ear for pitch on the violin and no interest in the stuff I was learning on trumpet. I couldn't work out why I was listening to Tears For Fears and Howard Jones but playing "Merrily We Roll Along." There was no connection, and I didn't last all that long with either instrument.

My introduction to bass was fairly pragmatic. Having seen Mark King on a kid's tv show, I knew I wanted to play bass, even though I'd never actually been able to pick out the bass part on anything I'd listened to. He just looked cool. When I moved from London to Berwick On Tweed (tiny town on the border between England and Scotland), the kid who lived next door was a drummer and his best friend was a guitarist. A local school teacher was selling a bass for 25 pounds (about $35), so I got that and a cheap guitar amp and started playing. I'm left handed but didn't know there were such things as left handed basses, so just played normally, and because all the tuition that I got was from the guitarist in the band, I played with a pick which soon became a thumb-pick to stop me dropping it! I was so naive, I didn't even know that you could buy new strings for a bass. When I broke the G string, I just tied one end around the bridge and carried on! I was completely rubbish, had no idea what I was doing but loved it!

Did you study formally or were you primarily self-taught? What types of instructional materials or methods did you focus on early in your development?

Well, my first big change came when I broke my arm and was kicked out of my band. Up until that point, I'd be learning the bass parts to the songs we were doing (Who and Cream covers, mainly) from the guitarist and also had a terrible book called How To Play Rock 'n' Roll Bass which included stickers to attach to the top of the neck of your bass telling you where the notes were!

Once I was kicked out of the band, I had to start playing on my own, as I didn't know any other musicians at school. So I borrowed a distortion pedal and started to play more chords, just root-five power chords, but it was a start in me thinking about bass as not just a "bass line" thing. All the while I had a "side project", if you can call it that, with a friend from school which just involved us setting a cassette recorder going and making weird noises with whatever came to hand, bass, guitar, keyboard, running water, banging stuff, screaming, reading surrealist poetry, anything to make ourselves laugh. But again, it took me in a different direction in terms of how we thought about making music. It wasn't about chords and melody, it was about sound and noise and creating an effect which was usually just our own amusement. As my playing got better, almost by accident, I started to read more music, especially as by this time I'd started to play in church as well. I assembled another band and started playing indie-pop stuff and also tried to incorporate some of the other ideas I'd had into this band. So I was playing a few chords and melody lines on bass and experimenting with some weirder noises. All of this was just done out of boredom more than anything else. There was no grand plan, no music lessons, no desire to do something "new." It was just finding myself in a situation and making the best of it!

I was studying music at school but failed the history and the theory parts because I spent so much time playing! Fortunately, I then got into music college on audition and studied music at Perth College in Scotland with Pete Honeyman, who was a fabulous teacher.

Which bassists have had the biggest influence on your playing?

Early on, Jack Bruce and John Entwhistle, just because that is what my first band was doing. After that, a lot of the new wave and goth bassists in the UK influenced me in that they were using effects and playing chords, people like Simon Gallup from the Cure (though I think Robert Smith played on a lot of the recordings), Peter Hook from New Order, and Kim Deal from the Pixies.

Then it all changed when I got into jazz and fusion. I think my first "bass" record was Stu Hamm's Kings Of Sleep, and that sent me off down a tapping path that lasted for years. I also started listening to Stanley Clarke and Jaco and not long after that started reading about Michael Manring. You couldn't find his records anywhere but just reading about his approach to music had an enourmous influence on me.

There were also a lot of other rock and pop bassists who made me think about bass in new ways, Nick Beggs from Kajagoogoo and Iona, Chris Squire from Yes, Ewan Vernal from Deacon Blue, and Doug Pinnick from King's X. There were loads. I became a musical sponge, listening to everything from Bill Evans to Napalm Death and Duran Duran to Olivier Messiaen!

When I finally got to hear Michael Manring, that changed a lot of things for me. Here was someone who wasn't playing "bass music." It was just great music but was simultaneously using some of the most incredibly advanced techniques that I'd ever come across. The main thing I picked up from Michael was "music first." Often with bass-lead music, it sounds like the technique is paramount, and the music is just an incidental vehicle for the tricks. But, with Michael it seemed to work the other way round. His extended palette of technques and sounds were just new ways of getting the music across. And, the other thing that I got from Michael, especially when I first saw him play live at NAMM '99, was the humour in what he does. Often, his performances are simultaneously mind-blowing, moving and hilarious, which was deeply inspirational to me.

What equipment are you currently using?

My solo set up has been the same for a while now. Bass wise, I'm playing my two Modulus basses, my Quantum 4 fretted (which used to be bright red and is now natural maple, thanks to a remarkable job by Martin Peterson in London) and my semi-hollow Q6 fretless which is sort of like the Oteil bass but with a lined fretless Granadillo board and a natural finish. Both have Lane Poor pickups in them. I really hope Lane gets back into business at some point as I love his pickups and can't get them anywhere! Both are strung with Bass Centre Elites strings, .045-.105 Player series on the fretted and .027-.125 flatwounds on the fretless (it was the first high C and the first .125 flatwound B-string that Elites had ever made).

My amp is an Ashdown C110-300, 300 watt 1x10 combo that sounds incredible. My debut solo album is all recorded with just a stereo mic in front of the combo so what you hear is what that amp sounds like. I love it. For my solo tour in California this January, I borrowed an Ashdown mini stack with a mini-4x8 and a 1x12 cab with a 500W head, and that was a remarkable sounding rig.

My effects set-up includes a Lexicon MPX-G2 multi-fx, a Lexicon JamMan, and a Line 6 DL4, all three of which I can loop with! I also would be completely lost without my E-Bow.

What current projects are you working on?

Well, my next release will be a duo CD with a pianist called Jez Carr, who played on one track on And Nothing But The Bass. He's an incredible player and has a wonderful sense of melody and form. The whole album is freely improvised, or rather, spontaneously composed, so there was no talking before we hit record. We just pressed play and started playing and stopped when each piece came to its natural conclusion. I'm really happy with it, and it should be out at the beginning of April.

I've also got a free-improv trio with two fine French musicians, fretless guitarist Franck Vigroux and percussionist Jerome Cury. We've played a few gigs together, and the concept of the group is really coming together. One of the fun things with free improvisation is that the "idea" of the group is constantly evolving according to what each of us has been listening to and playing and working on in our practice time.

I've just started work on a new album by singer/songwriter Andrew Buckton. He's from London, and I played on his last album, Now, But Not Yet. We started pre-production on it recently, and he's giving me a lot of room to play "non-bass" stuff on there, textural and melodic lines that compliment his guitar playing. I'm really looking forward to hearing where the music goes as we continue to work on it. And I've also got all the material written for a new completely solo bass CD.

Tell us about the material on your forthcoming solo release. What will we be hearing?

Well, I think it's quite a big leap forward from the first CD. On the first album, technologically I was somewhat limited by only using one loop box, the JamMan, so was writing tunes that I could play with just that. Since then, I've got the DL4 as well and have also started to incorporate the loop function on the MPX-G2. So now I have three unsync'd loops that I can work with, all over-lapping, which creates much thicker textures that are less static. I love And Nothing But The Bass. It captures what I was doing when I first started playing solo, and I still play those tunes live. But as with most musicians, the things that you've most recently discovered are what fire you up at the moment. Recently, I've been listening to a lot of musicians who work with loops in different ways, guitarists like David Torn, Andre LaFosse, and Bill Frisell, and the percussionist Rick Walker, who I've gigged with on a number of occasions. I have been incorporating ideas from their music, some of them "conceptual" and some technical. There are a couple of new tunes on my website which are in the direction of the new material.

One of the main things that will be on the new album that wasn't on the last one is a lot more percussive stuff. Having worked with a tabla player in Ragatal (UK indian/spanish/classical/jazz fusion quartet), I wanted to incorporate some of the rhythmic ideas that he was using into slap lines and found that the sound of those on my fretless was great for building up percussion parts to my tunes.

Lets talk about your technique. Do you have a daily practice routine? If so, could you run us through it? What essential aspects of bass technique or music do you focus most of your attention on?

I've got to the point where the most important aspect of everything that I do musically is sound. It seems to be one aspect that a lot of bass players pay little attention to, maybe because engineers on gigs and in studios spend so little time on bass sound. The basic building blocks of music are often spoken of as melody, harmony, and rhythm, but before all of those comes sound. Why is it that even when people play Beatles tunes note for note, it still doesn't have that magic? It's the sound. So for me, I spend a lot of time playing really simple things with as much control and awareness of the sound as I can. I work on diatonic interval studies, against a chordal loop and work on playing them with a degree of emotion, work on phrasing, elastic timing, variation in tone, different picking techniques, using my fingernails, my thumb, muting, using artificial harmonics, but still sticking with simple intervallic ideas, making them musical. I can't be bothered with ploughing through stuff that I'm never going to use. If it isn't "music first", I don't want to play it.

On the same sound theme, I spend a lot of time working on technique variations to find new percussive sounds and working with my effects processor to find new sounds that might inspire some new music. If I find a particularly strange sound, I'll go through all the possible ways I can think of getting a sound from my bass, hitting it, strumming it, plucking, twanging, thumping, e-bowing, tapping, slapping, whatever, just seeing how the techniques and the sounds interract.

When I do work on harmonic ideas, it tends to be chord tone based ideas, looking at how I can take a very simple set of changes, like I vi ii V in C for example and how many different ways I can approach that. In the first instance I'll work totally inside the key, listening for melodic fragments that I can work on, working with longer and longer phrases. It seems that as melody players develop, their concept of phrasing grows longer and longer. Coltrane would work a melodic idea for ages, varying it, sequencing it harmonically, changing the rhythm, stretching the phrasing which provides a greater sense of cohesion and continuity to an idea, rather that just stringing together unrelated licks.

The ultimate aim when improvising is to transcend the instrument, to just "sing" on it. On the way there I'm always looking to broaden my control of the instrument, my awareness of sound, my understanding of harmony, and my range of options in any given moment. So within any idea that I'm working on, I'll find the extremes and then work a continuum between them, fast and slow, inside and outside, loud and soft, funny and sad, high and low, big intervals, small intervals, etc.

What about your lyrical solo phrasing? When you are soloing are you thinking in terms of patterns, scales, or what?

I think I'm relating sounds to shapes. At any moment I could tell you what the note is, how it relates to the key and the chord etc., but I'm trying to get past worrying about that stuff. The practice time is about assimilation, getting that theoretical stuff internalized so that I can recall it. When you speak, you aren't aware of what letters are vowels and consonants, or which words are verbs and adjectives, or whether you are speaking in present or past tense. Instead, you're thinking about the meaning, about communicating. But, if you stopped and thought about it, you could work out what tools you were using to say that stuff. Same with music. I'm thinking about melody, about where I've come from and where I'm going, what the piece is about, and the effect I'm trying to create. On top of that, I've got to be aware of what's going on with all the loops, so it can be a bit of a mental strain at times!

As a solo bassist, you are widely recognized as one of the leading pioneers of today's "looping movement." In your solo shows you make extensive use of various looping techniques. Can you tell us a little about how you got into looping and your approach to developing a multi-layered bass composition?

The loop idea came from two things, reading an interview with Michael Manring and getting intensely dissatisfied with the sound of tapping. I spent countless hours learning how to tap. I did two years at music college and spent far too much of my time tapping! But, listening back to my own playing and to albums by some tappers, it sounded to me like two mediocre bassists duetting. Live it was great because of the visual aspect and the appreciation of the physical skill, but recorded it just didn't work for me at all. The degree of control that you have over the note attack was way too limiting for what I was trying to write and play.

So when I heard about the JamMan and this notion that you could record one part and straight away play over the top with another part, I was totally hooked. I was writing for Bassist magazine in the UK at the time and requested one for review. The review model I got only had 8 seconds of loop time, but it was enough to get me really into the idea. I started using it for teaching, so I could record one line and play against it to demonstrate what I was doing (I still think that a loop box is the most vital teaching tool known to man). After a while, Lexicon requested that I send the JamMan back, but instead I paid for it and also upgraded the memory to 32 seconds. I was so enamoured with the sound of looping, with the freedom it gave me to put my total focus on the chords and the bass and the melody rather than having to compromise them all to tap a composite part, that I spent ages working on my technique and my sounds. I wrote a couple of pieces and played them at a Ragatal gig in early 99, and the response was really good. Later in 99, a promoter booked me for a solo show, dispite my only having written two solo pieces. So I had 6 weeks to write a whole set's worth of material which is probably where the improvisational focus of what I do came from! I started to write musical "cells", just simple loop ideas that I would then improvise melodies over. Over the course of my first few gigs, some of those melodies started to solidify, but many are still different every time I play them. The problem with looping is that it can get a bit dull if you've just got the same short loop going round and round for ages with just a tune over the top. So I got into layering things up slowly through the piece, starting with just a chord progression and then adding an E-bow ambient line, maybe a bass part, a secondary chord part, or whatever. Looping also allowed me to switch between basses mid song. There are a few tracks on And Nothing But The Bass where I change from fretted to fretless.

Now, with the additional loop boxes, I can fade things in and out, have loops of different lengths, and with the DL4, flip things back to front and double the speed. I have many more variations possible within the looping frame work, so that strictly linear approach is now contrasted with some other compositional forms within my live set.

In 2001 you took part in the World's First Solo Bass Looping Festival and also toured California as a member of a solo bass looping trio with Michael Manring and Rick Walker. How did those gigs go? Were you able to capture any of those shows on tape, and are there any plans to release them? Will we be seeing more looping festivals in the future?

The looping festival idea was totally down to Rick Walker, a remarkable creative mind with boundless energy. He's spent 20-odd years building a reputation in Santa Cruz and is kind of the hub of all things creative in that area. So when I was looking to do some solo gigs in California around NAMM time, he offered to put one on and had some friends who were also looping with basses. So I decided to do the festival with Scott Kungha Drengsen, Max Valentino, Trey Donovan, and Rick himself, who plays just about every instrument ever invented and quite a few that haven't been invented yet! The success of that gig gave rise to thoughts about a tour. Michael and I had become friends over the previous couple of years, and so we invited him for a couple of the shows. He ended up doing all of them which was fanastic. We each did solo sets, with Max Valentino opening the show each night, and then Rick, Michael, and I did a freely improvised trio set at the end which in the true tradition of free improv was at times incredible and at times a train wreck, but mostly nearer the incredible fortunately. There may well be an album of stuff culled from that tour out at some point, you never know. We've got some great recordings. The response from the audiences was amazing, so I'm sure that there will be more looping festivals in the future. In fact, there are more being organized as we speak, just not bass specific ones.

Steve Lawson You are the founder of "The Solo Bass Network." What is the SBN's primary objective, and how can a person become a member?

The SBN is a great idea which has been poorly executed, by me. It started out as a news list for people involved in playing bass as a solo instrument: gig details, album releases, etc. But just after I set it up, I became extremely busy with solo gigs and other projects. So at the moment, it is primarily a links site for solo bassists, and it's a pretty comprehensive one. The list will be starting back up again soon, and you can sign up via the web site. It will be starting back up as a list you can post to as well as receive from so that people can post their own news. It may be moderated, we'll see how it goes. I think it's an important resource to have as solo bassists generally get ignored by the mainstream media. There's no strict stylistic repertoir for solo bass. It's not about jazz or pop or whatever, so it slips through the gaps. On the site there is everything from avant garde double bass soloists to punk bands with three bassists. It's a pretty broad musical spectrum.

Do you teach privately? If so, what sort of direction do you try to give your students? What aspects of bass playing do you try to stress the most?

Teaching privately is possibly my first love. I'm not sure which I prefer, teaching or gigging. I think I'd be lost without either. It is such a privilege to be able to impart something of what I know about music to someone else and to empower them to go and be creative, to give them the tools to do that. I stress "real" playing over exercises, contextualization of all musical examples. I talk a lot about concepts, approaches to playing, removing technical, theoretical, and conceptual obstructions to music and creativity. I look to empower the student with the musical and technical control and understanding to be able to play what they hear, to play what they want to hear. I don't impose stylistic contraints. I don't suggest that certain techniques are bad. I look for ways to direct their natural inclination towards whatever area of music they are into and to broaden that. There are few things in life that annoy me more than bad teaching. I get really frustrated with second rate guitarists teaching bass as a way to make some dough who then end up putting people off learning for good, people who think because they know a few licks they can teach, and teachers who take out their own insecurities on their students. I taught at a college once where the priniciple told me to give the students "a roasting." What crap is that? These are adults who've come to me for musical information, not some crass patronization where I pretend to be some musical uber-meister who knows everything. It's a dialogue, and it's about empowering the student, not cloning my technique and approach in other people.

And most of all, they have to ENJOY it. I don't complain if they don't practice. That's just a challenge to me to be more interesting and make it so they can't not practice. I don't get upset if they can't do something or don't understand it. That's my fault, not theirs. So I just explain it another way. I've been teaching for about 10 years, so I have a heck of a lot of ways of explaining all the stuff I teach. They have to leave the lesson wanting to play and feeling good about themselves, not crap because I'm telling them they aren't as good as me. Teachers can be so insecure, and if they dump that on the students, that's terrible.

Who are your favorite bassists today? What recordings would we be likely to hear in your CD player?

There are so many great bassists in the world today, it's wonderful. Michael Manring is still way up there. I love everything he does, from his solo stuff to his sideman work with John Gorka and Patti Larkin. Recently, I've been listening to a lot of Todd Johnson, who plays with the Ron Echete trio in LA. He's a monster player, playing a 6-string with a MIDI-pickup which allows him to play bass lines and hammond lines simultaneously. Ed Friedland gave me a demo of his forthcoming solo album which is fabulous. He's another great solo looping bassist, and his phrasing for melodies and jazz stuff is outstanding. I still listen to a lot of King's X. I love Doug Pinnick's playing. Other faves include Abe Laboriel, Danny Thompson, Kermit Driscoll, Carl Young from Spearhead, Bernard Edwards, Nathan Watts, David Friesen, Sara Lee, and Robert Sledge from Ben Folds Five.

My recent listening has been pretty varied. I'm getting really into r&b and hip-hop, like Mary J Blige, D'Angelo, Alicia Keys, and Craig David, as well as a lot of experimental guitar stuff like David Torn, Andre LaFosse, Mark Ribot, Bill Frisell, and Antonio Forcione. And the music that I always come back to whatever my current fad is singer/songwriters like Bruce Cockburn, Jonatha Brooke, Shaun Colvin, Tom Waits, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Lucy Kaplansky, Prefab Sprout, Lifehouse, Jeff Buckley, and Paul Simon. None of those are ever too far from my CD player. I love discovering new things, hearing new music, having my perceptions messed with, so I listen to everything from hardcore punk to orchestral. In the last month or so I've discovered a few things that I wouldn't have gone looking for but people have brought to me to hear. Brahms German Requiem is amazing, and a student brought me a CD by a mexican band called Molotov who are quite like Rage Against the Machine but I think have got two bassists! I just love expanding my parameters and learning from it all!

Which direction do you see the art of bass playing taking in the next 10 years?

I hope that music in general will separate out. The commercial crud that is churned out by increasingly profit driven record companies will be perceived as a different thing from music that is written for the sake of music. I think the internet is opening the door for musicians to write and play what they want to, not just what will sell. I think the knock on effect of this for bass is that people will experiment more and have more access to music by other people that are experimenting. Sites like this one play a key role in giving players access to music and information that might slip passed record company execs and the publishers of big music magazines, sites run by people who love music and are following that passion. So I'm looking forward to learning from a whole new generation of players. Heck, I'm only 29 myself, hardly a veteran! I'm just eager to get out there and play more, hear more, and hopefully encourage a few people to do the same.

What is up next for Steve Lawson? Are you working on any other projects at the moment? Are there any tour plans for the Steve Lawson show?

Well, there are a number of gigs in the pipeline to coincide with the release of the duo CD, all in the UK. I'm working on plans for another State-side jaunt in the summer, maybe out there for summer NAMM and then some gigs up the East Coast. I've got loads of other musical projects planned but don't want to jinx them by talking them up too much. Watch this space!

Outside of music, do you have any interests or hobbies?

I read a heck of a lot. It's what feeds my music. I read anything from trash magazines to heavy theology and politics, and it all influences what I do. I love traveling, which is just as well being a musician, and I'm really a "people person", so I spend a lot of time going out for dinner and talking about anything and everything with anyone. My favorite thing about touring is not the musical side of it, it's meeting the people. I'm really involved at my church, helping out at the homeless shelter there etc., which is cool. And, I am a complete internet junkie. I waste hours and hours surfing every known bass site on the net!

What advice would you like to you give to an aspiring bassist and the viewers of the IIB? Where would you suggest for them to start, and what would you tell them to concentrate on?

Don't assume anything, if you do, you're being sold someone else's view of what music should be. Bottom line, a bass is just a plank with some strings on it with some wires and stuff that helps it to make a noise. What that noise is and what context you put it in is totally up to you. If you want to play in a band of a certain style, there are assumptions that will be made. Sometimes it's good to work within those, sometimes it's good to break them. Think about what you're doing, all the time. Question everything, but whatever you decide to do, do it wholeheartedly. That doesn't mean that bass has to take over your life, just that if you decide that you only have an hour a week to practice, make that hour count. Enjoy it and say something with your music. Don't get so lost in music that you've got nothing to feed into your writing, and don't forget that being a nice person is of infinitely greater importance than being a good bassist.

Selected Discography

As A Leader
Not Dancing For Chicken
And Nothing But The Bass

With Jez Carr

For more information on Steve Lawson, visit: