Bad-fingers the Bass
And bass guitar - that necessary but oh-so-often denigrated beast - bass guitar can be as pulverizing or as melodic as any lead guitar, in the right hands. Stu Hamm has the right hands.
In this extensive interview, Hamm, one of the first artists to join the roster of Steve Vai's Favored Nations label, spoke with Musician.com about his latest solo release, Outbound, how he turned fatherhood into creative inspiration, and about keeping things Youth-ful.
Musician.com: Stu, Outbound definitely has it's 21st Century, urban influences. Tell us a little bit about the overall mood of this record.
Hamm: Well, I moved to San Francisco in '98. And it's really just a reflection of where I was at in the year 2000. Living in the city you hear a lot more urban beat type things and I just wanted the record to be a little more modern sounding. I didn't want it to be techno or hip-hop or anything like that, but I've met these kids in the city at a studio named Youth Engine that had done a lot of stuff and they had some really neat beats going on. I just kind of wanted to make it sound different than if I had a live drummer playing all those songs. It might have sounded a little more fusion-y and stuff, you know. I really wanted this record to be a lot of songs and moves and not just bass wankering.
I had some songs that I had been working on for awhile and I rented a rehearsal space, 'cause now that I've got a kid, I can't be working out of the house. So I actually had to leave and just hook myself up in this room with nothing but my basses and my secret serum, my little four-track. I wrote out the basic ideas of the songs and left a lot of room for improvisation, and just doing the recording process to see what input Chris and Greg, at Youth Engine had. I didn't want to have it to planned out as far as when I bring other people in to play. And I also wanted to do a more bass-y record, where I did a lot of the leads myself. We have a piccolo bass and an octave box, to emulate a guitar kind of sound, just so I could get the melody phrased the way I liked it, and just have more of me on it, you know.
Musician.com: How did you hook up with Youth Engine?
Hamm: Well the guy that I actually rented my studio from, Daniel, was telling me about them and said those are the guys that had the beats. And they're a little bit younger and just have a different take on them. So I met them and we played some stuff for each other and we hit it off really well, and it was just really fun working with them.
Musician.com: When you're sitting in your studio working on parts and writing do you differentiate between purposeful writing and just rehearsing and finding parts that turn into songs?
Hamm: Well just the initial songwriting process comes from when I'm just practicing. All of a sudden I'll come up with an idea or I'll have some chord changes on the piano and I'll try to play them chordally on the bass, and stuff like that. For me, a song really comes together when I name it. My songs are all like stories, so when I can know emotionally what the song's about, then I can kind of finish writing it. I want my music to be music - not just a series of techniques and chops and exercises. But sometimes I do sit down and say something like, 'This song needs a bridge now.' That's kind of a process of elimination because I'll write something bad and say, 'Well, that doesn't work.' So I eliminate that option and just keep plugging away and just try putting sections of songs that I'm writing in with other sections. It's just kind of like trial and error to see what works and what doesn't. But it's not like I wake up every morning at 8:30 and say, 'OK, now I'm gonna write a song.' It doesn't really come that way. But sometimes deadlines are a good thing. They do tend to kick you in the butt; make you finish things out.
Musician.com: Even without a deadline, once you have an idea going, do you work pretty hard at finishing a song, or do you tend to try parts and let them simmer for a while?
Hamm: I let them simmer. But fortunately, most of the songs come pretty quickly when I get on a tear. I've still got bits of songs I've been writing my whole life and I'll keep pulling them out and playing them and then one day inspiration will just hit, and I'll say, 'Well that works well together.' You know, some kind of a big bang of stuff I'm always working and writing on that I just draw from different records. This record, I just kind of pulled out some old ideas 'cause I knew we were going to go the old electronic drum route on it and that kind of helps with the process of just trying to hear the final song in my head.
Musician.com: How does playing with electronic drums differ for you from playing with a drummer like Steve Smith?
Hamm: Man, it's just such a totally different thing. I mean of all the drummers I've played with, Steve's probably my favorite 'cause he's just a fantastic drummer, in any kind of style. And what he added was just fantastic and great for the two songs he played on. For the other stuff, like I said, I just wanted to have a more modern beat. I hear a lot of that in the city. I guess one song, "The Castro Hustle" is - I live in that area of town called 'the Castro," which is like the big gay part of town. So I keep hearing all these gay, '70s disco beats, and I kind of wanted to write a song like that - about the neighborhood. So that's where that came from. And you know drummers: They always want to overplay. If you've got electronic drums, you don't have anyone trying to sneak in a five-over-four fill just to be tricky or anything. And like I said, I wanted more of a vibe thing. It's funny: When you put Steve's live drums over the electronic drums that I did the demos on, it's pretty spotless. As far as timing, it's really not that much of a difference. It's just like I said, there's a little less going on on the drum part in that way, so it's just a vibe thing.
Musician.com: What should young players look for in a drummer for their band? And what advice would you give those drummers?
Hamm: Well for really young guys, you should try to get a drummer that has his own truck so you don't have to cart his stuff around. That always helps! [laughs] You know, look for a guy that's just musical and has the ears, that listens, and that you feel comfortable with. Not a guy that's a showoff that's going to try to do a show. A guy that can play songs is really great. And someone that has a good, positive groove that you feel comfortable with. And my advice to drummers: If drummers don't listen to what I play, they're not going to listen to what I say. There's a lot of great drummers out there and you have to just use big ears [to find the right drummer]. In some ways, they're a necessary evil. And if they were all just boring and played grooves, I guess life wouldn't be as much fun. It might groove a little more. Throw away your Frank Zappa records - that's my advice - and listen to like some old Chaka Khan or something.
Musician.com: You're saying keep it simple.
Musician.com: How has fatherhood affected your music?
Hamm: At least I get stuff done now. My daughter is up and walking and talking. I was on the road so much last year, I had been out like six or seven weeks at a time. And my wife said, 'When you come home, buddy, I'm going back to work and you're going to be Mr. Mom for a while.' So, that's what I'm doing.
I stayed home for like the first six months, when she was born, before we went back out on the road and stuff. So we bonded good, but it's hard to do. It's like Zen abandonment you know. You have to realize, 'OK, I'm not going to practice today. I'm not going to get anything done. I'm just going to be Mr. Mom.'
But she's been a great joy and inspiration. Obviously, I wrote "Charlotte's Song" for her and I played that in the hospital. And I wrote a couple other waltzes that we played for her, when she was in the womb. And another song I wrote for her is on the Steve Smith/Frank Gambale record that we did. The song is called "First Look." And that was like the first melody that I wrote, while she was just in a little bassinette. Back then, she could just lay there and I had both hands free, but it's time consuming.
But just like I said, I worked super hard last year touring with Joe, I did the solo record, and then I did the other Smith/Gambale record The Light Beyond, and then I was also touring with this Mexican band called the Jagures and recording with them. So I finished up in the beginning of February and then it was just nice to have some time off, you know? And I'd practice at night.
Musician.com: How did the music that Joe was playing on the Engines of Creation tour affect what you did here? I do hear some similarity.
Hamm: Well, I did my record before I heard his techno record. And it's a different thing. I mean Eric [Satch co-producer Eric Caudieux] is fantastic. It's a lot more going on and it's more electronic. I think my record has a little more balls than Joe's does. It's certainly a beefier sounding record. And I guess it would be easier to say Stu did a techno record because Joe did it, but that really wasn't the case, you know. I hadn't heard it. In fact, I finished mastering my record the day before his rehearsal started and I shut up. I did not even speak to him. He was pissed off but what can I say? But I'm obviously influenced by just hearing electronic music you know. It's not just drilled but it's a lot of that going down. A good example is the song "A Better World," or just some of the ballads, I think if I had a drummer playing it would've just sounded more like every other instrumental, kind of jazzy, kind of fusion-y thing. Hopefully, with electronic drums you kind of took it in a little bit different way.
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