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Norm Stockton - December 2001


As an educator with a deep-rooted passion for teaching, Norm Stockton has released an acclaimed video series titled Grooving for Heaven. As a bassist who possesses the rare ability to compose sophisticated-sounding arrangements and blow over solos with explosive exhibitions of technical proficiency, Norm Stockton has demonstrated his extensive skills on his debut solo outing, Pondering the Sushi. Whether it's holding down a percolating funk vamp laden with crisp, cool funk slaps or taking off on a technically terrifying solo excursion full of pyrotechnical taps, Norm Stockton displays all the characteristics that are found in a virtuoso-caliber bassist. But make no mistake, this down-to-earth musician recognizes the importance of keeping the groove firmly placed where it belongs, in the pocket. With his debut solo effort, Norm has already turned a lot of heads inside and out of the bass community. Although we can only ponder what the future holds for the art of bass playing, we can say with a great deal of certainty that the future of Norm Stockton looks to be grooving for heaven and a place among the masters of the bass tradition.

In this interview, Norm ponders, at length, a wide variety of topics with us. In our discussion Norm shares his thoughts on his earliest years growing up in the shadow of prodigy-like siblings, his biggest influences, gear, his latest solo outing Pondering the Sushi, technique, his videos, the future of bass, the importance of developing a deep passion for the groove, and much more!




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

I was born in Yokosuka, Japan (in a year when Fender built a lot of basses I wish I owned today!), and lived there most of my childhood. My father worked for the government, and my mother is Japanese. I really appreciate the cultural richness of my upbringing. Plus, I was exposed to some of the best food in the world! I also lived in Hawaii for about 5 years, which was an absolute blast for a young watersport fanatic. The first time I resided in the continental U.S. was when I moved to California in 1983, and I've never left. It's a wonderful place to live, and I'm really grateful every time I return from a trip.

How did you become involved with music? When did bass become your principle instrument?

I grew up in the shadow of child prodigy-like, virtuoso siblings. My older brother and sister were simply incredible musicians (guitar and piano, respectively) as young kids. I, on the other hand, sustained a few obligatory piano lessons to pacify my parents' need to expose us kids to the arts (smile) but was far more interested in non-musical pursuits. In retrospect, I think I was probably feeling a fair degree of intimidation. My brother and sister had definitely set the mark pretty high!

Anyway, I loved to listen to my brother's records, and that love of music never left. Eventually, at the age of 15, an absolute obsession with the Beatles (yes, this was many years after Beatlemania had come and gone!) prompted me to remove several "unnecessary" strings from an old acoustic guitar, and I began to learn McCartney lines by ear. Within weeks, I had purchased a cheap bass guitar and have been a bassist ever since.

Did you study formally or were you primarily self-taught? What types of instructional materials did you study?

I love Jaco's term, "formally self-taught"! That was certainly the case with me. My older brother sat me down fairly early on and explained some music fundamentals to me (scales, intervals, etc.), but I have never gone to music school. I really wish that I had. It would have really expedited my learning process. I have sat down with some amazing players/teachers (Brian Bromberg, Carol Kaye, Bob Magnusson, Dominique Di Piazza) for single lessons, but most of my learning was from listening, as well as a number of videos and books. My instructional video collection numbers around 35-40, and I also own a bunch of the Aebersold stuff.

Describe your musical influences. Which bassists had the biggest influence on you and why?

There have been different phases. Early on, it was certainly all about Paul McCartney. Shortly after that, I got fully into progressive rock and spent many years learning by emulating guys like Geddy Lee and Dave Hope (Kansas). I had pretty much reached a plateau in terms of my musical growth and interest, then along came a concert at a local club featuring Chick Corea & the Electric Band! I'll tell you, I sat there that night and watched the universe open before me, in a musical sense. I suddenly had this painful revelation that for all the stuff I thought I knew, there was INFINITELY more out there, of which I had no clue! It was one of the best things to ever happen to me, though. I proceeded to immerse myself into the world of jazz and fusion and anything that grooves.

My present influences are all of the main guys out there today: Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller, Brian Bromberg, John Patitucci, etc. I really find that I'm excited about anything that has musical/artistic integrity and emotes. To me, any of those guys I mentioned are phenomenally emotive musicians who can groove like nobody's business, and the chops are just the spice. I LOVE that.

What gear are you currently using?

Here's a portion of the "quiver", with my most-frequently-used instruments listed first:

MTD 535 Fretted 5-string
Carvin AC-50F Fretless Acoustic 5-string
MTD 735 Fretted 7-string
'63 Hofner Beatlebass
MTD Kingston Fretless 5-string
Peavey B-Quad Fretless 5-string (with panning strings)
Modulus Quantum Fretted 5-string

The MTD 535 and Carvin acoustic are indispensable for me. I absolutely love how they sound and play and consequently am an avid endorser of both MTD and Carvin products.

As far as amps, my main rig is currently an Eden WT-800 head with two Euphonic Audio VL210's. I also find myself using my little Carvin AG-100 combo amp surprisingly often. It really does sound pretty decent, and it weighs practically nothing. It's actually a bit weird to be playing $4K basses through such a modest combo amp, but I wouldn't do it if it didn't sound good!

For effects, I use the EBS UniChorus, Octabass, and BASSiq pedals. For my recent CD project, I also used a Mutron, as well as a Line 6 Delay Modeler. Very fun units.

What current projects are you working on?

I'm presently finishing up some tracks for an instrumental jazz project of traditional hymns with contemporary arrangements. It's been a lot of fun, and the other musicians are fabulous. Dave Owens (Thomas Dolby, Peter White, presently house drummer for L.A. production of "The Lion King") is such a fantastic drummer and great friend, and it is a treat to be tracking to his stuff. His playing on Pondering the Sushi was absolutely hip.

In addition, I'm excited to say that "The Race" (opening track from the Pondering CD) has been selected for Bass Talk 7, the upcoming compilation from Germany's Hotwire Records. It is slated for release in early 2002, and the playlist will include tracks from notables such as Jeff Berlin, Tom Kennedy (with Dave Weckl), Kai Eckhardt (formerly with John McLaughlin), Jimmy Haslip (with Danny Gottlieb), and Ray Riendeau (whom I notice you recently profiled, as well!). Should be a fun listen.

On your latest release, Pondering the Sushi, your bass tone sounds incredible. How did you record it?

Thanks! You know, my part was actually incredibly low-tech. I literally plugged my basses (primarily the MTD 535, 735, or the Carvin acoustic fretless) directly into the input of my Roland VS-1680, using Monster cable. I guess the resulting tone was testimony to a number of things: arguably the best basses available today, the sonic fidelity of the Roland digital workstation, the fabulous tube gear used during mixdown, the fact that we mixed down to 1/2" analog tape (enhanced the low end in an unbelievably musical way), and the expertise of the mixdown and mastering engineers. Both Mike Harris (Signature Sound) and Gavin Lurssen (The Mastering Lab) played huge parts in helping me realize the bass tones I was going for. I'm indebted to them for their huge ears, technical artistry, and genuine humility. It was really a blessing working with them.

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? What are you studying right now?

As far as my technique, I pretty much utilize a one-finger-per-fret approach with my fretting hand and use my first two fingers (and thumb, for slapping or certain muted sounds) on my plucking hand. For certain slapping or tapping techniques, I might incorporate a combination of double-thumbing (down and up with the thumb), snapping with the first and second fingers, or utilizing the 3rd and 4th fingers on the right hand as well. However, the vast majority of the time, it's just 1st and 2nd fingers, playing "normal" bass.

Relative to a daily practice routine, I'm actually rather embarrassed to say that my recent practice regimen has been in a SAD STATE! (ha) It seems that I spend so much time in front of a computer keyboard, you know all the peripheral aspects of being a musician these days, that I often find myself trying to woodshed here and there as the schedule permits. I tell you, it's precisely what I hammer on when giving clinics!

That stated, I am pleased to say that I'm getting back to a bit more discipline and things are looking up. My normal practice routine usually involves a series of stretches (I've battled tendinitis in the past, so stretches and warm-ups are critical), some reading practice, some focused work on timekeeping with either a metronome or drum machine, woodshedding some sort of "chops-oriented" technique I might be struggling with, and working on jazz harmony. The latter is an ongoing area that I know will occupy my attention for the rest of my life.


On Pondering the Sushi you not only demonstrate your extraordinary chops on bass, but you also exhibit your skills as a composer and arranger. Could you describe your compositional process for us? Do you have a particular approach to composing? Do you write most of your material on bass?

Thanks for the kind words. My compositional process is fairly straightforward and probably pretty common. I will sometimes hear melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic ideas in my mind and will rush to a tape recorder or sheet of music paper (whichever is closer) to throw it down for later. Other times, I will be exploring an idea while woodshedding and will quickly record it if it sounds like something worth pursuing. When the time comes to do a project, I like to go back through those tapes or charts and see which ideas or sketches seem to be sympathetic to each other or otherwise make a nice statement together. I write 95% of the time on bass. I think I wrote one tune on piano but ended up not using that on the Pondering project.

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

It's interesting how things work. Personally, I devote a great deal of practice time to modes, various scales, harmonic substitutions, etc. However, when it comes time for soloing, I tend to try to turn off that part of my brain and simply emote. It's difficult to be preoccupied with some heavily left-brain, technical concept and still manage to really SAY something, at least it is for me. Anytime I'm focusing on such things, the resulting musical statement seems to either subtly or overtly reflect that fact. That's not to say that I'm not aware of those things as I'm playing. It's rather that I deliberately try to focus on the emotional statement over the language syntax.

Norm Stockton As an educator, you have an acclaimed video series called Grooving For Heaven. What do you cover in these videos? How can a person go about obtaining them?

Yeah, the Grooving videos came about after doing a number of clinics and consistently hearing folks tell me that they would really dig it if I could stick around for a few extra days and get into some of the "nuts and bolts" practical aspects of effectively functioning as a bassist. I started thinking about what I would share with these players if given the opportunity. That eventually resulted in about 3 hours of material, which covers what I consider to be the hugely-important-but-frequently-overlooked elements of being a functional bassist.

The videos cover a broad range of topics, from strap length to fingerboard familiarity, fundamental slap technique to the diatonic modes (and their application), a study of the idioms of various common musical styles (i.e. what makes a bass line sound Latin, Reggae, Funk, etc.), how to play a fill or embellishment without trampling the vocal line, introduction to fretless bass, and a bunch more. The videos were geared toward players in the contemporary worship environment, but 95% of the program material is applicable to music in general. As a matter of fact, I've received overwhelmingly positive feedback from both secular and Christian sources regarding the instructional value, production quality, and overall vibe of the Grooving for Heaven videos. They're available through Mars Music, Sam Ash, and a number of other retailers around the U.S. or directly from me via my web site.

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?

Yes, and I love it. My curriculum is 100% geared toward equipping a player to confidently pull off this one objective: being given a random drum groove and chord progression and being able to immediately come up with 15-20 different bass lines, each of which are viable depending upon the specific context and all with great time/feel and phrasing. To me, that ability is the one thing that will keep a bassist's phone ringing. It's the primary thing that 90% of the musical situations out there require and what other players are desiring from us. There is so much emphasis given to the flash/chops thing, which certainly is cool and inspiring, but accounts for so little of what most of us actually do when on the gig or session.

Consequently, my emphasis is initially on laying down that solid foundation of proper technique, fretboard knowledge, and basic theory. Once that is generally together, we begin to focus upon drum grooves, ear training for beat placement, and coming up with parts. From there, it's phrasing, fills, etc. Only at that point, if a player is totally solid and able to groove, will we venture down the road of slapping, chording, tapping, or whatever else interests them.

Again, it's not that I disdain flash. I think my own CD collection, as well as some of the stuff on the Pondering CD, bear testimony to the fact that I enjoy pyrotechnics, too. However, that stuff has got to come AFTER a solid musical foundation is established. Otherwise, the result is having the ability to play Slappity-Whackity-Blippity-Blackity Lick #37 but with no clue as to how to apply it in a different context (or tweak it to make it something uniquely YOU!).

Who are your favorite bassists today? What are you currently listening to?

I actually have a bunch of favorites, to tell you the truth. There are so many amazing musicians today who happen to be bassists and who make such distinctive and sublimely MUSICAL statements. I just can't narrow it down to one or two cats. My list of faves today would definitely include the guys I mentioned earlier as my influences but also includes (in no particular order) Neil Stubenhaus, Abraham Laboriel, Mike Brignardello, Alain Caron, Sting, Tetsuo Sakurai, Jimmy Lee Sloas, Dominique Di Piazza, Michael Manring, Paul McCartney, Larry Kimpel, and a whole slew of other guys that I'll probably remember as soon as this interview is published!

My CD changer presently contains a fairly random range of music, including Matthew Garrison, DC Talk, Jungle Funk, Jonatha Brooke, Luna Halo, Front Page, Stanley Clarke, Michael Manring, Victor Wooten, and some disc called Pondering the Sushi, obviously put out by some mentally unstable person. (ha)

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

You know, I think it will continue on a number of divergent courses: there will always be the cats who will be pushing the limits of human anatomical capability with ultra-mega-hyper-stupenda-chops, and there will always be the players who focus on grooving like there's no tomorrow. HOPEFULLY, the next 10 years will bring about more players who push the limits in terms of "chops" but who also push the limits relative to just exactly HOW musical, how emotive, how communicative, and how INCREDIBLY deep of a pocket they can create. I think music will be better for it.

Otherwise, I really dig what I'm hearing today, where folks are blending different genres and coming up with unique music. I hope that continues.

What can we expect from Norm Stockton next? Are there any future tour plans for a Norm Stockton band? Where can a bassist catch you and the Norm Stockton show live?

It's a bit of a challenge because there are so many different things for which I have a passion: I really dig playing live, but I also really love teaching, doing clinics, recording, and even doing some of the business and relational sorts of things associated with being a musician. I'm in the process of deciding whether to proceed with another instructional video (the 3rd in the Grooving for Heaven series) or possibly do a music-minus-one book & CD set for Pondering the Sushi.

I'm also contemplating the logistics behind doing an intensive, 3-day "Grooving for Heaven" clinic/seminar, where guys would fly out to spend a few days out here in Southern California, soaking up the sun and really diving into this whole idea of what it is to be a bassist in an ensemble, lots and lots of practical hands-on stuff. I'd love it if that came together.

There's also the possibility that I will be doing some clinics under the auspices of MTD (which would be a great deal of fun - Michael Tobias is a good friend, and I'm such a fan of his instruments).

I've been in the process of assembling a small ensemble to be able to do some live dates for the Pondering the Sushi material. I'd really love to do that. The challenge has been finding the time, as well as coordinating it so that the cats I'm REALLY wanting are available. Lord willing, we'll be able to do some "Live Sushi" dates in early 2002. If so, I'm hopeful that the folks who've been enjoying the CD will come out to support the shows! (hint, hint)

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

I'm a Christian, so I suppose one could say that my primary interest in life is my relationship with God. He's done amazing, tangible, mind-blowing sorts of things in my life and is definitely the motivation and creative impetus behind my music. As far as hobbies, I'm an absolute watersports addict (sailing, windsurfing, water skiing, snorkeling, etc.).

I've been married for 10 years to my best friend, Gina, and we have two incredible daughters (ages 6 and 4). I'm a blessed man.

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?

The single best piece of musical advice I can give is this: develop a passion for the groove. That's it. Make it where it is your primary objective whenever you're playing with a group. Once that becomes a passion for you, then you'll invariably focus on all the right stuff: time, feel, phrasing, economy of notes, JUST saying what needs to be said, etc.

I don't want to beat the proverbial dead horse but just want to say one last time: don't find yourself among the alarming number of kids who can sound virtuosic for 5 to 10 seconds at a time in a music store but have no idea of what it is to really lay it down with a drummer. Without the latter ability, all of the chops in the world won't compensate. It's the honest truth, even if some of you find my words to be a bit hard to swallow.

Do you have any closing thoughts, or is there anything else you would like to mention that I may have missed?

I really appreciated this opportunity to hang out with you and your viewers a bit! I hope guys (and ladies!) come away motivated to pursue their own bass playing with dedication, enthusiasm, and a desire to really express themselves with artistic integrity. Music is such a gift, and it's a huge privilege to be able to do what we do. Don't squander that away.

The events of September 11 continue to make my heart ache over the loss of life in NYC, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. My prayers definitely go out to the families and loved ones left behind. Due to having numerous friends and business associates in and around NYC, and even recording part of my project (the solo bass rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner", ironically) in a Manhattan hotel last year, this tragedy struck particularly close to home for me. God help us, protect us, and grant our leaders acute wisdom.



Selected Discography

As A Leader
Pondering the Sushi

Compilations
Bass Talk 7 - Early 2002

With Steve Laury
Vineland Dreams
Cuttin' Up

With Peter Shambrook
Live at Cafe Lido

With Paul Clark
Christmas


For more information on Norm Stockton, visit: NormStockton.com.