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Keep an Eye on Bassist Damian Erskine

by Editor, Jake Kot

Damian Erskine is hitting the bass world hard with the release of his solo debut “Trios”, as well as a growing tour schedule. Beyond that, he keeps busy with clinics, private lessons, and has put together an instructional book called “Erskine Bass Perspective”.  I had the opportunity to sit down for a virtual chat with this talented musician…

[Jake] Give me a little history on yourself. I know you have some interesting stories
about your early days coming up as a player.

[Damian] My grandfather started me on the bass at around age six. He loaded me up with transcriptions, books with tapes (minus bass tracks) to play with, and Rufus Reid’s books. He had me working on pretty difficult stuff like “Teen Town,” “Donna Lee,” and anything he could find by Jaco Pastorius, along with solos by Eddie Gomez. He was a seriously hip guy with a strong work ethic. He forced me to work on scales daily.

Initially, I always viewed the bass as something I was forced to do because my real love was the drums which I discovered when I was ten years old. My uncle, drummer Peter Erskine, was generous to give me a Slingerland kit, and my family was generous enough to let me go absolutely nuts in the basement for hours on end. The coolest thing my family did for me was drive me to New York from South Jersey frequently on weekends to watch Peter play with a variety of the best guys in the city at 7th Ave. South which was a club owned, I believe, by the Brecker brothers. I got to see Jaco’s Word of Mouth Band, Bob Mintzer’s Big Band, John Scofield, John Abercrombie, Marc Johnson, and Weather Report among other well known musicians. I was one lucky kid!

Eventually, I started to to get really attracted to the bass because of some Weather Report albums my mom had (did I mention that my family was really cool?!).  Jaco did it for me.  I couldn’t get enough of Jaco or Scofield’s “Blue Matter”.  My grandfather was always giving me tapes of things Peter gave him, so I had a pretty styling tape collection for a kid.

[Jake] Your solo debut CD sounds great. Tell me about the players involved, and what persuaded you to use a trio format.

[Damian] Thank you!  The disc is primarily the collaborative effort of two of my favorite musicians in Portland, Pianist Ramsey Embick and drummer Reinhardt Melz.  I’ve been lucky enough to play quite a bit with these virtuosos and I just love the way we connect when we play, no matter what style it is, but, especially when we play latin tinged jazz.  These guys just lift this music to a whole ‘nother level!  There are also a few tracks with Flamenco guitarist Toshi Onizuka and African drummer, Israel Annoh.  I play quite a bit with these guys at a local restaurant when I’m in town and we just have such a good time, I had to put a few tracks in there with them as well.  World-class guys!

I’ve always enjoyed the trio format over most any other (except for a big horn section, maybe!).  I just love the interplay that can develop.  There’s so much room for interaction with three people and I especially love the piano trio.  It just seems to have such potential, musically.

[Jake] I enjoyed the multiple techniques you employed on your CD, such as muting, and a flamingo style approach. What inspired you to add these techniques to your playing.

[Damian] A number of things led to the development of some of my current techniques.  I’ve always enjoyed playing chords on the 6-string bass, which led to some thumb development (as I use the thumb to play the lower notes of a chord, typically).  Beyond that, I’ve always loved the sound I get when I mute just a little bit with my palm back by the bridge, but I never liked the way I was handicapped by the necessary right hand position.

I started experimenting with using my pinky to mute by the bridge saddles (which also serves as a pretty solid anchor, by the way) and I came to a technique where I rest the tip of my pinky on the string I am playing and bend the knuckle over to also mute the 2 higher strings above it!  This also puts my right hand in a more classical guitar like hand position which naturally lends itself to a more thumb inclusive finger style.

Ultimately, it led to me muting VERY often with my pinky and me using my thumb, index and middle fingers quite a bit (I use my ring finger occasionally for fast triplet style percussive attacks).  Somewhat similar to Dominique DiPiazza but not with any finger picks and using only downstrokes with my thumb.

I admit, I also started stealing techniques from Toshi Onizuka at our flamenco gigs.  He is such a percussive player and I (being a lover of all things rhythmic) had no choice but to try and emulate him when I would take my solos… almost as a kind of game.  I just couldn’t help trying to copy what he was doing and then Israel would jump in and we would just chase each other around the song…  It became quite fun and the audience always got a kick out of it as well, so I wound up developing some more flamenco style rhythmic vocabularies..  Although, I’m not able to play with true flamenco technique, I can only emulate the sound and rhythms.

[Jake] Seems like you’ve done well as far as developing a “voice” for yourself this early in the game. What do you think you might attribute that to.

[Damian] That’s a tricky one.  I was never able to do things exactly as other people did them on the bass, BUT I would always make it a point to investigate my own ways of doing something I heard, if I liked it.  For example, I LOVED Victor Wooten’s playing in College (still do!) but it never felt comfortable for me to slap.  So I took the rhythmic aspects of his playing that I liked and tried to apply them to a more finger style way of doing it.  I still got to learn and transcribe a bunch of his tunes, but wound up developing my own technical vocabulary in the process.  I think the key is always focusing on making things feel good to you both internally and physically.  If something didn’t feel good to me musically, I wouldn’t bother with it (but NEVER out of laziness!)

I also tried very hard to fit into any musical situation that might come my way and always tried to do it with authenticity.  BUT, I always wanted to make sure I had fun doing it.  At the same time, I always focused on trying to make things feel good to me AND the rest of the band AND the audience.  It’s always important to me to lock in with the drummer as tightly as possible.  I think a big advantage I have is having spent so many years as a drummer.  I tend to have pretty good instincts and abilities when it comes to following drummer and getting “like-minded” with them.

[Jake] What sort of setup do you use for recording and also playing shows?

[Damian] I am always playing my Zon Sonus bass. It’s basically a Todd Johnson signature model with 26 frets, an extended cutaway, and some further modifications. I had Zon place both pickups further back towards the bridge to emulate what I usually did on older basses with my blend knob. Zon is also making me a 4-string version of the bass which I am very excited to receive. I always use my Aguilar DB 750 head with either my Aguilar GS 410 speaker cabinet for big shows or my Aguilar GS 112 cabinet for small gigs. In larger venues, I’ll usually place a microphone in front of my rig to get a fuller sound than most DI’s provide. I also use D’Addario strings exclusively and Planet Waves cables.

When I record my bass, I usually use two channels. I mic the rig to one channel while I run my Aguilar DI to the other channel. It’s a great sounding combination. I don’t really use any effects except for the occasional octave pedal or envelope filter. I do love my Boss Loop Station for teaching and practicing.

Basically, I’ve obsessed over my tone and have always looked for reliable gear that would allow me to get the full range of tones I want from just my fingers. I don’t like to go overboard on the equalization. I just want a nice tube preamp sound with small tweaks here and there, but I mostly like to use my fingers to get the sound I hear.

[Jake] Aside from your local gigs and sessions, are there any other projects that your excited about right now?

[Damian] Definitely!  This summer, in particular, is going to be a blast. I’ve been invited to play at the “Ultimate Bass Concert” at the Jazz School, in Berkeley, CA.  It’s being put on by Zon Guitars, Accugroove Cabinets, Gelb Guitars and “Bass & Beyond”.  It will include solo performances by myself, Michael Manring, Ray Riendeau, Todd Johnson & Jonni Lightfoot as well as a full ‘on jam’ session at the end.  Should be fun!  I’ll also be teaching at both the SF Bass Weekend and the National Guitar Workshop rock summit in Seattle this summer.

Immediately following the SF Bass Weekend, I’ll be flying to Toronto to work with “Lots Wife” (phenominal rapper/poet) and Kate Schutt (beautiful singer/songwriter and Novax 8-string guitarist!).  That’ll feature myself and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums (very excited to play with her, finally).

As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve also spent most of the year thus far touring with Banjo/slide guitarist Tony Furtado.  In July, we’ll continue on down the road to a handful of festivals on the west coast including High Sierra, Targhee Americana and Folk Festival and a bunch more up and down the coast.

[Jake] And what gear are you endorsing?

[Damian]

Basses: Zon Sonus 4 & 6 string basses with extended cutaway, 26 frets and custom radiused pickups by Bartolini.

Head: Aguilar DB750

Cabs: Aguilar 112 & 410 cabs

Strings: D’Addario “EXL170” Nickel Wound strings

I also endorse Planet Wave cables and Gruvgear’s “V-Cart”

For more information on Damian Erskine, visit www.damianerskine.com

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