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Steve Lawson - October 2006

Considered the U.K.'s premier solo bass guitarist, Steve Lawson has been acknowledged as one of the most innovative voices to have emerged on the electric bass in years. Utilizing his 6-string fretless and fretted basses along with the latest in looping technology, Lawson released his fourth solo project in June, 2006. Lawson's solo bass compositions include palettes of lush sonic soundscapes and layers of ambient textures which have helped to redefine the art of looping and live performance as a solo bassist. As a result of the acclaim he has received for his solo bass orchestrations, Lawson has headlined major concerts across Europe and the United States. He has toured the United Kingdom as the opening act for Level 42 and has also performed his music at bass events including the European BassDay, Euro Bass Day, Bass Day U.K., and the NAMM Bass Bash.

In this interview, Lawson discusses his new solo project, looping, gigging as a solo bassist, playing fretless bass, and much more.

Could you tell us about, Behind Every Word, your latest solo recording?

Steve Lawson It's a pretty special album for me and was a long time coming. The solo album before it, Grace And Gratitude, said pretty much all I felt I had to say as a solo artist up until that point. It was the culmination of five years of looping and improvising and exploring how that framework interacted with the way I wanted to soundtrack my world. I spent two years playing those tunes live and wasn't really hearing anything new coming along.

I started to record some ideas in September 2005, but at almost exactly the same time, Bob Amstadt contacted me about the Looperlative. It was a project he had mentioned to me in the past, but now he had a date by which the prototype would be ready. From what he was describing, I knew it was something that would impact my playing in a really positive way. As a result, I held off on writing any new music until the Looperlative arrived, and then a whole flood of new ideas presented themselves as I was getting to know how it worked.

How does Behind Every Word compare compositionally to your other recordings as a solo artist?

It feels more structured to me. That's one of the benefits of using the Looperlative. It allows the user the opportunity to incorporate more structure into the composition process. It provides options for syncing and unsyncing tracks, for switching between different sections in a piece, and for retriggering old layers at a later date while still in time which made the whole looping process much less rigid and much more open to a fluid performance style. As I experimented with those things, a few well-structured pieces appeared even though they were initially improvisations.

This album is also the second outing for my fretted Modulus 6-string which was first featured on Grace And Gratitude. While the fretless 6-string is still my primary voice, I'm really in love with the sound of this fretted bass, and I think that comes across on the new CD.

How much of your music is spontaneously improvised to that which is composed?

The opening track, "Blue Planet," was the first thing I recorded for the new CD, and it was a one-take improvisation. I still haven't learned how to do it again to play it live! It's a single repeating bass groove, but there are other bits that come in and out against it which help it evolve in a really cool way. I'd been listening to Ry Cooder's Paris, Texas soundtrack a lot so it has that kind of landscape to it. It's just a little less "arid" I guess. It's named after a documentary series about the sea rather than a film shot in a desert! Beyond that, there are some heavily written things on the album. The title track took more takes to get right than anything I've ever recorded. I have a rule that things should be done in one take with little or no editing and certainly no bass overdubs. It took forever to get that one right. It's a really hard tune to play, but I think it was worth the effort. The track with BJ Cole, "Scott Peck," was a tune that I had been kicking around for about six months. While I was recording the album, I had a friend in New York who acted as "production advisor" on it, and she asked about the tune for Scott Peck that I originally improvised on the day the author M. Scott Peck died, but it was shaped a bit as it went along. The pedal steel was recorded in three separate overdubs. The other collaborative track on there, "One Step," with Julie McKee is a single live, improvised track. We did three versions of it. Each one explored similar sonic territory, but there weren't any written melodic themes, just the lyrics.

What sort of setup did you use for recording Behind Every Word?

The signal chain went bass into Lexicon MPX-G2 #1 and then into a Mackie 1402 mixer. On the alt 3+4 outs of the mixer was the Looperlative so I could assign anything to the Looperlative just by pushing the mute button for that channel. On FX send #1 was my second Lexicon MPX-G2 which had my Kaoss Pad in its FX loop so I could route anything from the mixer through those via aux send #1. Both the Looperlative and the G2/Kaoss Pad came back into two channels so I was able to then record them all individually to my PC on which I run Adobe Audition. It was as simple as that!

What makes the Looperlative superior to other looping devices?

The short answer is just about everything! For a start, it's all stereo which allows the huge stereo Lexicon reverbs that I use to have a massive effect on the sound. Most of the loopers on the market feature a single mono loop. Some of them let you store more loops, but at any one time, you've got only one mono loop running. The Looperlative LP1 has 8 stereo channels which can be synced or not, routed to any one of the three stereo outputs, and internally manipulated, reversed, scrambled, faded out, muted and brought back, slowed down, and so forth. The feature set is amazing and constantly growing. The Looperlative has an ethernet port on the back so when suggestions come in for new features Bob Amstadt can program them and put them up on the Looperlative web site for free download. It's already the best looper available, and it's getting better by the day. I'd be utterly lost without it now.

How did you get into looping?

I had toyed around with the sample and hold function on my old ART Nightbass processor in the early 90's, but it really started to take shape in my mind after reading an interview with Michael Manring. I hadn't heard any of Michael's music at the time, but just the way he described it sounded really interesting to me. When I started writing for the now defunct Bassist magazine in the United Kingdom, I immediately requested a Lexicon JamMan for review. It had only eight seconds of loop time available which felt like a lifetime back then! I was playing with it all the time, and I couldn't get over how freeing it was to be able to put one part down and play over it. The idea of going out and doing solo shows was suddenly not something that would require me to be tapping all the way through. Tapping was a technique that I had got increasingly disillusioned with due to the rather limited attack possible. From there, I just progressed through lots of different loopers. I upgraded the JamMan to an extended looping time of 32 seconds, and then I got a Line 6 DL4 followed by a couple Gibson Echoplexes and finally the Looperlative. I think I'll be using the Looperlative for quite a few years.

Can you describe your composition process as it pertains to looping?

I have a few different starting points. One is obviously using a chord progression just by looping some chords and seeing what fits. From there, I can then either add another layer, possibly varying the harmony, or I can switch to a B section like I do on "Behind Every Word" and on "Scott Peck." I can also add an unsynced ambient wash that will change the harmony in a different way each time the loops repeat because they'll overlap in a different place. There are a range of different starting points that are also end points. The chord progression might actually come in very late in the composition if it's a more ambient piece, or I might start with a percussive rhythm. There are so many options beyond just starting a loop and going round and round.

What would be your advice to someone who wants to begin incorporating looping into their own playing?

Steve Lawson The hardest thing to do with looping is to make it sound like a sequenced backing track, and the best way to avoid that is to play out of time. That sounds like a crazy notion, but if the rhythm is non-metric or more complex for the listener to get a handle on, it will be quite a few more repeats before they "get it," and even then you have far more room to push and pull against it. This is one of those things that feels really alien to bassists because we are used to playing in time since that's our primary job within a band. With looping, it's pretty vital to be "stretchy" with time. Your melodies don't always have to start and end on the beat, and allow the loop some ambiguity to give the listener space to engage with it on a host of different levels.

The best way to get a handle on this is to just give it a try. Buy a looper, and spend some time getting used to starting and stopping bits in time. It's pretty tough to get that first skill together. Try writing some lines, and try to just record grooves like "Chameleon" and "Brick House" to play over. Have fun and it will provide its own inspiration.

I would definitely recommend talking to other loopers about looping as well. There's so much on the internet for people wanting to learn about looping. Just ask questions in order to find what's possible!

Who inspired you to pursue a career as a solo bassist?

From a playing point of view, Michael Manring was the inspiration. Seeing him play at the NAMM show in 1999 was a big leap forward for me, and that was 11 months before I ever did a solo show. He's probably the single biggest musical influence on me and certainly the biggest influence as a musician.

A lot of the decisions were made for me. In the late 90's, I was playing with a quartet, and in the show, I did a solo looped piece. A promoter was at one of the shows we did and asked me if I wanted to do a solo gig. I came up with a half-hour of material and did it. I put some MP3's on my web site and got a bunch of e-mails from people wanting to know when the album was out. It was nuts! I released a live album just for them, but it did such a good job of letting people know what I was up to that my session career pretty much vanished and the solo thing took over. In some ways, that's a shame because I still love playing bass for bands and singers, but I wouldn't swap the feeling of playing solo for anything.

Is it difficult to find gigs as a solo bassist?

Yes. You've just got to go and convince people that they want to hear what you do. I think it's harder to get gigs doing music that doesn't fit into a particular style than it is on a particular instrument. If I was playing standards, I'd find it a lot easier to get gigs, or if I was doing music you could dance to or if I sang, I know lots of places I could play. Playing music that crosses a lot of stylistic boundaries and is instrumental without being straight jazz makes life tricky.

Do you play any regular gigs as the member of a band?

Some but not as many as I'd like. I really love just playing bass, playing grooves, playing walking bass, funk bass, and pop bass. I guess people just don't see me as that kind of player.

Was there anything in particular that helped you make the transition from playing fretted to fretless basses?

Being left-handed was a big help. I play right-handed which means that my strong hand is on the fingerboard, and that makes intonation less of a hassle. I also, rather wisely, got a lined fretless bass right from the beginning. I can't even begin to imagine why anyone plays an unlined fretless bass. That makes no sense to me at all.

What is the Recycle Collective?

The Recycle Collective is a monthly gig in London that I book where I play improvised music with some of the greatest improvising musicians I've ever come across. The lineup is different every month, but some of the regulars include BJ Cole who is in Sting's band, Leo Abrahams who is in Roxy Music and works a lot with Brian Eno, Cleveland Wakiss who is one of the most celebrated jazz singers in the U.K., and Julie McKee with whom I played a run at the Edinburgh Festival this year which is the biggest arts festival in the world. The format is usually that I book two other musicians, and we do three sets. Each set is "curated" by one of us and features a solo, duo, and trio element so we all get to play some solo stuff, try all three possible duo options, and have three trio sections led by each one of us. It has resulted in some of the greatest music I've ever had the privilege to be involved with, and I'm really excited about where it might lead in the future!

Where can viewers pick up your recordings?

The best place to check out my music is through my web site at

Selected Discography

Steve Lawson
Solo Recordings
Behind Every Word
Grace And Gratitude
Not Dancing For Chicken
And Nothing But The Bass

With Jez Carr:

With Theo Travis:
For The Love Of Open Spaces


Modulus Custom 6-String Fretted
Modulus Custom 6-String Fretless
Modulus Q4 4-String Fretted

AccuGroove Tri110L

Bass Centre Elites

Evidence Audio

Looperlative LP1


For more information on Steve Lawson, visit:

Photos By Steve Brown

© 2006 The IIB