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SA Bassists With Martin Simpson – An Interview with James Sunney

For this month’s interview we stay in the Gauteng region of South Africa and speak to one of this County’s up and coming young talents, James Sunney.

This is what James told me earlier this year…

James, You recently gave me some cd’s that showcase you as bass guitarist in a rock band setting and as an upright bassist in a jazz trio. The rock band is Watershed – one of South Africa’s top notch rock acts. How did you land the bass chair?

I had been knocking around the SA pop rock scene as a freelance player for a few years with various artists, my main gig was with Heinz Winckler’s (SA idols winner) Band along with some really great players from whom I learned a great deal about what it is to be a good supportive sideman. I cut my teeth in that band so to speak.

In 2007 I got a call from Craig Hinds, Watershed front man, saying they were in need of a bass player and my name had popped up through talking to a few musicians who had recommended me.

It was quite the trial by fire as I joined, I remember playing 3 gigs in a row here in SA

and then immediately off for a tour in the Middle East and UK.  So I had to get my ducks in a row very quickly.

How does it feel to be taking over from Vernon Hodgetts – the man with the flaming arms  – he’s something of a legend in South African bass circles isn’t he?

Not knowing Vernon personally, I can’t really comment on that, but being the new guy in a band setup is probably tougher socially then musically. There are a bunch of new personalities one has to learn to communicate with and everyone is a bit conservative or guarded  to a new unknown entity on the band stand, but all of that usually gets sorted out at 02h00 in the morning at the bar after the first couple of gigs.

As far as playing the music goes I think one should interpret the music with their own voice while having respect and a sensitivity to the parts that were laid down by the players that came before you. Those are the parts and grooves that made those songs popular with the audience. So when in doubt go with what you know works.

After years of working as a ‘hired gun’ are you enjoying being a permanent member of one of SA’s leading pop / rock acts? Are they allowing you to give vent to your creative juices?

Moving from a session type environment to a permanent band member setup one needs to make quite a shift in ones approach. As a freelance player all you need to concentrate on is making sure the music side of things is happening and the artist you are supporting does the performance part to communicate with the crowd, but when you are a member of a band you need to make sure the music is kicking as well as making sure you perform and interact with the crowd to convey the message in the music and represent what your band is about.

The nice thing about a steady band setup is that the guys in the band develop a sound and cohesive groove that can’t be developed when members are constantly changing. I guess that is why many artists hang on to the same session musicians for years and years.

The jazz trio is the (drummer) Peter Auret Trio cd called Turn The Tide. Could you tell us a bit about the making of this cd?

Yeah- I really enjoyed being part of that project. I had known Peter about five years earlier having played a few jazz gigs with him and then hooked up again when I joined Watershed.

He is the other cog in the Watershed rhythm section. Ever since I joined the band he had always mentioned he was working on some original jazz material and that he would really dig to do an album.

So when he finally gave me a call and told me he was ready to track his album, and that he would like me to play on the album along with him and pianist Roland Moses I was over the moon. Both are exceptionally gifted musical instrumentalists.

The album is a nice surprise. Being a drummer’s album you would expect a disk full of rhythmic exercises wall to wall flash. But at the core of the album are well written beautiful songs that allow the musician to interpret and lend his voice and personality to the music. I love playing in trio settings and playing with Peter and Roland is as good as it gets.

Where do you feel most at home – bass guitar or double bass?

Oooh, thats a tough question. The double bass doesn’t conjure images of soft wooly slippers when I think of it. I have spent most of my career on electric bass guitar and EUB, but after tracking the Peter Auret album a passion for the acoustic instrument consumed me and I realized that the instrument deserved more of my respect and attention. So… for the last year and a half I have tried to emerse myself in the world of double bass dedicating most of my daily practice routine to the big instrument. I have learned that if you plan on approaching the double bass like an electric bassist you are gonna get hurt , literally!!!!!

It’s quite amazing how many bass players actually eventually end up working with the Double Bass exclusively after beginning their careers on bass guitar. Could you ever see yourself dropping the BG in favour of its Big Brother?

I enjoy playing both, all you need to do is try and pump out a solid 8th note rock and roll bass line on upright bass to realize that double bass is not ideal for everything. Both instruments have their positives and negatives. The musical environment dictates which axe goes in the back of the car. On certain days I admire DB players who have soldiered on for years carting such cumbersome chunks of wood around with them for so many years.

Could you tell us a bit about the equipment you’ve used and what you’re currently using?

Sure, very much like guitarists , bassists seem to fall prey to gear addictions. I am no exception. I will just mention the ones that really got me.

I used to prefer quite a modern sound and had basses like a Lakland 55-94 Deluxe, Music-man stingray 5. with an SwR Mobass amp and cabinets.

I then heard the John Mayer album with Pino Palladino playing, it completely flipped my opinion on gear and tone.

So now I  am primarily using a 1964 L series Fender Precision. I love this bass. There is a reason they are sought after and I am lucky to have it. I also have a Lakland Duck Dunn Signature skyline precision that I use when traveling.

For jazz gigs I use a lovely Christopher Hybrid upright equipped with a David gage Realist. Which I got a chance to play while on tour in Frankfurt and then had the bass shipped to South Africa a few months later (it was one hell of big package to receive in the mail.)

I also have a NS-design electric upright which was my main jazz bass for a long time.

As far as amps go I currently use a Genz Benz 10 inch combo with an extra extension cab if need be on both jazz and rock gigs for onstage monitoring and this little badboy gives as much as I will ever need. I have toured Europe with an 8×10 Ampeg cab and SVT 4 head. Never ever again !!!!!!!

Are you from a musical family?

None of my family members are professional musicians but my mother is a good singer and my grandfather and uncle both played accordion and organ. So there was always music at family gatherings.

What inspired you to become a Bass Player?

As I continue to play and learn more my opinion on why I play the bass keeps changing. Originally it was the “BASS” in a shop window that got me hooked then, it was probably an image thing. Later it was hearing great players who inspired me. So as I look back  the reasons I started playing the bass are rather different to reasons I continue to play the bass and push on to develop more.

In many bands you find that the Bass Player is also the musical director. Have you ever had any experience in this role?

I haven’t had the chance to take on that roll, to be honest I haven’t played in many situations where a musical director was in charge. Most of the groups I have worked in, every instrumentalist has faith that the other musicians know the material and will do a good job and if there are any arrangements decisions to be made they are made together.

I also think musical director positions require a special type of personality and an ability to reign in and communicate with people who essentially consider themselves free spirits – which is not always the easiest task and I am not sure I have the skill set to do that yet.

You’ve now got one complete album with Watershed under your belt and you feature on a few tracks of their greatest hits album. What other albums, apart from Turn The Tide would you recommend for further listening?

I must admit I haven’t spent a lot of time as a studio player and I am slowly building a body of  recorded work. I most recently tracked the bass parts for singer songwriter Laurie Levine and her new album should hit the shelves in June or July 2011.

I also got to achieve a life-long dream a couple of months ago where I got to play on one of the  tracks on Johnny Clegg’s new album. Most of the album was done in Belgium but one song got tracked here in South Africa and I got to play on it so I am quite chuffed about that. The song is “Hidden away down” off the Human album.

What do you get up to when you’re having a break from music?

When not taking part in any music related activities I really enjoy just relaxing at home watching tele or reading a book or browsing the web to find out what apple’s next gadget release could entale. I am quite the apple fan boy.

And finally, have you got any tips for bassists that were born ten years behind you?

That’s a tough one. I think a lot of what one learns is from making mistakes and then correcting them but I will share some that I feel wasted my time and focus. The First thing is gear. Good gear is essential for a working bass player but the industry places so much focus on equipment we forget to play. I dropped loads of cash on equipment that I thought would improve my playing. Boy was I wrong. Stick to things that work and wont involve the sale of a kidney.

I am not much of a chops monster and I do need to work on that, but I think the most important thing to work on is hearing the music and ear training. I really feel my playing and creative musical decisions improve the more I can hear what is being done musically and what the music needs from me. I work on ear training every morning and I still have a long way to go but every step I take forward opens up more and more musical possibilities. It is an auditory art after all.

And finally “Time” Buy a metronome and use it!

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