Continuing on with my theory that the bassist is the most revered and essential member of any band, I have discovered countless individuals along my musical journey who plow through the low end without compromise. Where prowess meets obscurity and then flips every audible ear within the frequency of a 15” cone– the undeniable throb that only a bass guitar can produce. Lead singers and guitarists step aside… Our time has come.
Chris Kael of Five Finger Death Punch is a living testament to my theory. A living, breathing- skull crushing bass player who is not just carving a niche within the band, he’s following a path of integrity and a musical identity that was born through a solid musical upbringing. Hard work and passion that every bassist before and after him understands. And here’s the spoiler alert: he is a damn nice guy.
After initially picking up the guitar, Chris tried out bass and it was a revelation. “As soon as I picked up the bass for the first time, I was like- oh, now I get it! This is what I’ve been looking for.” He also found that, like many of us, the bass was slipping into his subconscious. “As I was growing up as a little kid, I was listening to the bass-lines and not realizing that I was listening to them”.
And music that comes from somewhere honest must find roots to support growth, and with Chris it started with some of the greats like Cliff Burton and Jason Newsted. There were also unsung heroes like Judas Priest’s Ian Hill and Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue- two names not often thrown around in the bass community, snubbed for lack of technical proficiency. Just try telling them that.
Still- not everyone is going to conjure their inner “Anethesia: Pulling Teeth” and Heavy Metal and even Alternative Metal wouldn’t have progressed to its current state without the now classic “Shout at the Devil”. Metal bass playing has always relied on a linchpin of various technical aspects and consistent songwriting to satisfy fans seeking out something hard and something real.
Chris utilizes those foundations on Five Finger Death Punch’s latest releaseWrong Side of Heaven, Righteous Side of Hell, Vol. 2, delivering the ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ variation that fans have come to expect: punishing riffs compounded with a heightened sense of melody. And anger? Yeah, there is plenty of that to go around. If music has become a popularity contest in this era of auto-tune, self-grandeur and posturing, then nobody told Five Finger Death Punch. They skirt around that nonsense, simply grabbing ahold of your throat, bludgeoning you over the head and allowing you to come up for enough air to get swept into a melodic hook… only to continue the assault once you’ve caught your breath.
Chris is the rhythmic glue that holds it all together. Armed with his signature line of Spector basses, Chris uses a consistent pick attack that would cramp even the loosest of wrists; locking everything in tight with limited breathing room.
He shared his thoughts on his growing persona amidst the new era of social accessibility and the origins of his playing style. He also discussed how to be supportive amidst a wall of ever changing riffs– and oh yeah, he settles a widely disputed argument in the bass community and shares a most unusual pre-gig activity.
How are you Chris?
I’m doing good! I’m down here in Corpus Christi getting close to the end of this tour, then we’re home for a week and back out for another six weeks! So, staying busy…
Tell me about the new record!
The Wrong Side of Heaven, The Righteous Side of Hell, Vol.1 came out a couple months ago and we have Volume2 coming out November 19th. Plugging away and getting that ready, and discussing video ideas.
You wrote so many songs that you needed two releases in the same year??
Yeah- we really got together and were just writing up a storm. You get to a certain point that you have so many songs and we were like- which ones do we keep and which ones do we shelve and revisit later? But we were so in love with every song that was coming out—so why not put them all out? And originally we wanted to do a true double album and release it on the same day. One side was gonna be called Wrong Side of Heaven and the other side was going to be called Righteous Side of Hell, but we thought that would be too much to take in, as a fan, you know? People can process twelve songs at a time and enjoy them, and thencome back and get the other twelve.
With digital downloads now, do people even go to record stores or buy CD’s anymore?
I’ve always been the hard copy kind of guy. People love the convenience of MP3’s and iTunes but for me it’s about the experience of going into the record store. There’s this record store in Vegas called ZIA Records. When I’m at home, literally every Tuesday, I go browsing and check things out, and they got a listening station there—the full environment of a record store.
Like Tower Records back in the day! Do you buy vinyl as well?
Not so much vinyl- it’s mainly CD’s for me. I think I bought only one MP3 download this year—the new Chimaira record; because we were out on the road and I couldn’t get to a store so I just said “dammit- I want it and I don’t feel like waiting”!
Do you have a favorite track on the new album?
Volume 2 has so many good songs on it- we really find ourselves listening to 2,rather than Volume 1 which is crazy but there’s something about it… probably “Here to Die”? We also have the cover of “The House of the Rising Sun” which I think came out amazingly well.
That’s a bold choice- was that a collective decision by the band?
It was originally a collective idea that started with Ivan (5FDP’s singer) and he came in first; and when you’re doing a cover you kind of want to make it your own. We were messing with the 6/8 time, because we didn’t know if we like this whole ‘swing’ feeling. So we put it into 4/4 and adapted it so it has a bit more of a ‘stomp’ to it.
It’s more about trying to drive the rhythm for me. I take a very Ian Hill (from Judas Priest) approach. You got so much going on guitar wise with Jason & Zoltan (5FDP guitarists) that you don’t want to be complicating things even more by a ridiculous bass line. There’s time for that, but generally speaking I tend to treat it from a percussive standpoint.
Do you use alternate picking or is it all down-strokes?
Down-strokes- all the time. I read an interview ages ago from Jason Newsted and he was always talking about the attack of the pick when you’re writing and doing down-strokes. Such a heavy approach and percussive style in my playing and it helps.
So two of your early influences were Ian Hill and Jason Newsted?
Those were the two big ones.
Anybody else stand out?
Oh god- Cliff Burton, from a melody standpoint. He was a master of melody- just beautiful stuff. So when I’m writing the pretty stuff that is what comes to mind. With our stuff though, I consider the bass an extension of the percussive sound of the drums.
There’s been a long argument between bass players, and that’s when Jason joined Metallica there were people siding with him and his pick attack, and the other side who preferred Cliff and his finger-style. Here’s your chance to end that argument!
You know, honestly, I would say I’m a Cliff Burton guy. I run into that a little bit now because the guy before me was a finger player and I’m a pick player*. Even now people are like “Why don’t you use your fingers?” and my argument to that is: Cliff Burton used his fingers and did everything that anyone could possibly do with his fingers—it’s done. What can I do that Cliff Burton didn’t already do? That’s part of my argument with picks over fingers. (laughs)
*Chris replaced original bassist Matt Snell in 2011
Beside Judas Priest and Metallica, what were some of your early influences that got you interested in Metal?
The very first musician that made me want to do this- to be a musician and a performer, was Gene Simmons of KISS. I saw him on the show 3-2-1 Contact and immediately when I saw that, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t know at the time that bass was what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to be on that stage. As my ear developed over time, I tried to play guitar at first- I picked it up and I wanted to play but didn’t know if that was it. And as soon as I picked up a bass the first time, I was like—now I get it! This is what I’ve been looking for.
It’s the weight and the power of that low end frequency, right?
Oh my god- yeah! And even going back and re-examining with things I was listening to- as a listener, when I was a little kid, I would listen to the bass-lines and not realize I was listening to the bass. I grew up listening to Nikki Sixx, Gene Simmons; all those guys- particularly Nikki Sixx, because he did a lot of the doubling of the guitar lines. And he did little variations here and there and going with the driving single not bass-lines. It took me a while to realize what I was listening too, but once I had that bass in my hand I saw how it was all coming together.
And with Motley Crue, it always felt like the guitarist was following Nikki Sixx- especially with songs like “Dr. Feelgood”… so here’s a question: You got Gene Simmons, Nikki Sixx, Steve Harris, Lemmy, Jason & Cliff- the list could go on forever! You don’t have to tell a fellow bass player that they’re great. So why is the bassist still the least recognized member of the band??
Haha… because we don’t have the flash, generally speaking that a lot of the other things have. The vocalist is clearly up in the front, in the face of everybody and you got all the other stuff going on guitar-wise, but the bass player has to step back and hold everything together, rather than be out there in the forefront like the other guys. You have to be the ‘glue’ in the band.
I kind of beg to differ on my end, anyway!
Hahaha– with this beard, it’s hard to walk outside and not get noticed!
I swore I was not gonna talk about the beard!
You wanna talk about being recognized? Me and Jason went to a mall a little while ago and we were just kind of walking around before the show that day, and literally every ten minutes people would be walking up “Hey Chris, hey Chris!!” (laughs)
My friend Caitlynn is proof of this. I told her I was interviewing the “bass guy” for Five Finger Death Punch (assuming she had no idea who you were), and she lost her mind—completely!!
Nice. That means I’m making my presence known, I like that!
When you started out- how did you learn to play? Did you take formal lessons or work it all out by ear and feel?
I was in the Junior High Band playing woodwind instruments, so I knew how to read. As far as learning bass, using guitar magazines and tablature- learning songs that I wanted to learn from bands I really liked and wanted to emulate. I was learning songs while developing my own style.
Do you remember the first song you learned?
I think it was “Rock You Like a Hurricane” by The Scorpions? From there I went really fast and learned “Tom Sawyer” by Rush.
The bass part in the bridge too??
That one took me a while, but yeah. Haha
You’re on the road a lot and with recording as well- do you still find the need to practice? Or do you not want to touch the bass when you’re home??
When you’re on the road you get your warm-up time, so you’re kind of noodling, but as far as actual practice, I save that for home when I can kick back and enjoy the instrument. There is so much going on out on the road and we got two albums out in the same year- it’s easy to get sidetracked. But I warm up, working on different scales and different theory but generally, out on the road is about the performance and the practice to get ready for the performance.
What current bands and bass players are you into?
As far as bass players coming up- I’m more of a band guy. I’m really listening to a lot of the new stuff coming out, like the new Hatebreed and there’s a band called Bring Me the Horizon… and they’ve really matured on their new album. They’ve found their niche- great grooves and just good songwriting… and speaking of bass players, the new Norma Jean record. That bass player really stands out.
And I’m assuming you have an iPod. Is there anything on there that might surprise people- mostly your fans?
A band called Die Antwoord. Everyone knows I listen to them now because I’ve talked so much about them. But if you were to see these guys and not know I listen to them, you’d be surprised. They’re like a rave-rap band out of South Africa, but it’s incredible- very into the whole performance art and it’s a full package and just great.
You were using the Rex Brown signature line from Spector and now you have your own line. How cool is that?
Oh, it’s incredible! In Death Punch we have paid tribute to bands like Pantera. We’ve kind of taken what they’ve done and developed it into our own style and that’s what I wanted to do with the signature line as well. I was originally playing the Rex Brown (Pantera bassist) signature line- the Rex 4, and we added different pick-ups. I needed a different sound to cut through all the low end that goes on with Jason & Zoltan. Instead of having the humbucker pick-ups I got the p/j pick-ups put in. I use the ones made by EMG (EMG® BT™ Tone Circuit and EMG® P/J™ active pickups) and they really gave me the clarity and a different sound to cut through. As far as the other things I’ve done to it- I’ve taken off the fret markers- there’s no dots on there. I was really going for a rugged look- a tribute to hot rods and motorcycles. I just wanted it basic. I got a matte black and a matte white finish. Paying tribute to the ‘knuckleheads’ (5FDP fans/mascot) and giving it more attitude, it also has the brass knuckle bridge.
The matte white finish looks great.
Yeah- I’ve never seen that on a bass before. You’ve seen black matte but when the white came out… it was just what I was looking for.
Is it hard to keep clean when the white gets sweat & dirt on it?
It’s not too bad. It adds to the ruggedness. But that what I was going for (w/ the signature line)—it’s a personification of me: something tough & rugged.
It does, no doubt. Do you remember your first bass you ever owned??
The very first bass I had was some sort of Fender Jazz bass copy and the next one I had was a Rickenbacker copy by Ibanez (possibly the 2388b?). The first one I worked really hard for and saved up all summer for mowing grass was a BC Rich Warlock. That goes back to the whole Nikki Sixx/Motley Crue thing and I knew that’s what I wanted.
With the way they were designed they could double as a weapon if you needed it!
Oh yeah- haha, I could see that!
I remember seeing the guys in Slayer with those and immediately thinking—bad-ass!
Nothing says metal like those crazy shapes. I still collect those types of basses- I love those shapes.
So you have a nice collection of basses?
A moderate one… I have a couple things here and there- the Warlocks are probably my favorite.
Is BC Rich even around anymore??
Yeah- they’re still in business and plugging away! BC Rich is under the same parent company as Spector, and they do all the distribution.
You and Rex Brown from Pantera have a similar right hand technique: you arch rests on the bridge, your three fingers hang loose while the thumb and pointer (holding the pick) do the work—there’s very little movement, and it’s very controlled. Was he a big influence?
Yeah, definitely. Pantera, as far as developing my style were right there, along with Jason Newsted’s pick attack. For Rex to have those bass-lines behind the stuff Dimebag was doing—it takes a hell of a player to be able to stand out behind someone as good as that. Rex did an incredible job and was a big influence on me. Simple and driving and then some of the other stuff he came up with were ridiculous- moving all around. Dude was an incredible bass player and he’s a real cool guy as well.
He filled in a lot of space for Pantera- I’m surprised they didn’t use a second guitar track (in the studio) on most of their songs… with bands like Metallica, especially when Jason came in, they obviously had two guitarists and he sort of got lost in the mix. You can’t even hear the bass on the 1st record he was on!
I just read a book, man I forget what it was, I read so many… but someone was talking about how they were friends with Metallica, and they brought over the tapes from …And Justice For All. They were totally screwing him in the mix because he was the new guy!
…the Rex Brown autobiography?
They said they did it as a joke!
Yeah- exactly! Haha
And people have bitched about the mix on that record forever!
I would love to hear a re-mix of that album with bass parts on it.
Jason is a great bass player though- so what the hell was up with that? Haha
Yeah, egos I guess? I can understand it- the new guy coming in?
Did you get hazed too??
Honestly, no. I think they learned a lot from hearing stories like this, and we’re all professionals here—this isn’t a high school band! It’s a group of professionals with the same goal. There’s no point in doing that to someone, so I was lucky. They welcomed me with open arms and they knew exactly what they wanted and I delivered it.
Speaking of Pantera and so many bands like them- they really held on by a thin thread, ready to combust at any time (due to personal & drug/alcohol related issues)- it’s amazing they put out 5 studio records! I notice with you specifically- you weight train, use supplements and stay healthy. I know it should be obvious, but how is that important to your playing and career?
There are plenty of things out here that can get you sidetracked- there is nothing good out here on the road. Laziness sets in, and you end up all docile and sitting around on the bus watching TV. You have your choice of drugs and alcohol out here, and you’ve seen that back in the day. Hell- Aerosmith? You see some of their live videos and you can really see the effects of drugs and alcohol on those guys. I try to stay healthy by doing a lot of weightlifting out here on the road. We have our own security guy who also trains MMA for us, and I’m a Muay-Thai guy myself… and it’s something we enjoy. It’s time for us and it’s hard to find time for yourself on the road. You get those little moments for yourself, whether it be weight training– I even bring my P90X DVD’s out on the road, just to stay on top of it to make sure I’m in the best physical condition possible. You get out here and tour as much as we do- the road can definitely take a toll on you.
Especially as much as you guys tour- like two/thirds of the year. That’s a lot of shows!
We left in the beginning of September for this tour and we leave again and aren’t back until the middle of December… four months straight before we’re back home.
Does your tour rider provide you with supplements, protein powders, etc…?
No, no- I actually have a sponsorship with MusclePharm and they take care of me so I get all that stuff sent out here. I get a huge box once a month full of supplements. I don’t want to get real big… you know Arnold Schwarzenegger strong? Haha
Or like Glenn Danzig, when he came out the one year all huge & muscular??
Exactly—strong & lean…
Is there anything you always do before you go onstage?
Listen to stupid music backstage with Jeremy (5FDP drummer), mostly. Devo, and god, you need to look up this video on YouTube- we were flipping through and this song was so terrible it was beautiful: a song called “Scrotum Sack”.
Haha- what? Really?? My editor is gonna love this…
It is so terrible but it is so funny! That’s what we listen to before we go out and be Metal!
Do you still get butterflies before you go onstage?
No, not at all- as long as you’re prepared and you know your material and make sure you’re ready for it. There’s no need to be nervous. Everybody out there wants to see you and supports you… happy to see you do your thing.
Well, on behalf of other bass players, thank you. I can see why people gravitate to you! You are a down to earth, passionate bassist who enjoys connecting with the fans. Good luck with the tour and the new record!
Not a problem! Thank you, brother. I appreciate it!
Five Finger Death Punch’s new release “The Wrong Side of Heaven, The Righteous Side of Hell, Vol. 2” releases to store and iTunes November 19th.