Why Is Music Important (The Panel Experiment) – Latest Installment, an Interview with Bassist Steve Jenkins
Who are you, and what do you do?
I’m Steve Jenkins, a bassist who’s been living in Brooklyn for the past 9 years. As a sideman, I have worked with folks like Vernon Reid, Cindy Blackman, Screaming Headless Torsos, David Fiuczynski’s KIF, David Gilmore, Gene Lake, Thomas Pridgen, and others.
As a solo artist I have reased two albums to date. The first release, “Mad Science”, has a strong “Weather Report, 70’s, Herbie (Hancock)” influence to it, while my long-in-the-making 2013 release “Steve Jenkins And The Coaxial Flutter”, is more influenced by progressive rock, metal, fusion, and electronic music.
Who are your primary musical influences?
Initially, I was really into rock stuff…! I saw KISS on television when I was 3 and that was it for me! My older brother listened to Van Halen and Yes, and those records had a profound impact on me. However, the album that made me want to study music was Prince’s “Purple Rain”. I was in 3rd Grade and I remember hearing the synth-strings at the end of the song “Purple Rain” and I was mesmerized by how beautiful it was. I am an 80’s kid, so I heard lots of the pop music of the day – which was great!
My primary bass influences include: Gene Simmons, Geddy Lee, Jaco Pastorius, David Dyson, Doug Wimbish, Prince, Pino Palladino, Gary Willis, Marcus Miller, Darryl Jenifer (Bad Brains), Matt Garrison, Kai Eckhardt, Paul Jackson, Oteil (Burbridge), Tim Lefebvre, and MeShell Ndege’Ocello.
What are you listening to musically, in the past 12 months, that has enhanced the way you think about music and your craft?
Kneebody, Dawn Of MIDI, Dillinger Escape Plan, Mehliana (the Brad Mehldau and Mark Guiliana album), Meshuggah, Louis Cole, Animals As Leaders, Flying Lotus, Revocation, Intronaut, Death Grips, Paris Monster, and many of my peers and friends in NYC, who make music and who are some of the best musicians I’ve heard.
How does your personal musical voice directly relate to the function of the basses? Also, what are your main instruments?
I think the one thing I have on other bass player’s and bass player- types, is that I really care a great deal about the pocket and the tones I try to achieve through my instrument. I don’t have to flex or use my chops to make the music function well from a bass standpoint. I’ve learned how to play complex music without having to always be the complex part of it. I have to say much of that was honed during my time with (guitarist) David Fiuczynski. We made a record called “Kif Express”, and I grew a lot as a player. “Fuze” is very demanding and he would constantly challenge me to dig deeper – as opposed to just blazing all the time. I’ve also done plenty of straight up groove gigs where it’s just “the part… and nothing else”.
Now, when left to my own devices… I do lots of weird shit on the bass! I have decided to embrace it and let it be what it is. I have also assimilated lots of guitar and drum techniques into my playing. So when there is freedom to explore, the sky is the limit. But, I’m not into “bass stuff”, for the sake of “bass stuff”. I suppose, at some point, I just stopped caring about all that! I work on technique and improvisation just to keep my hands and mind sharp.
My main instruments are a modified Fender Geddy Lee Jazz Bass (hipshot ultralight tuners, Aguilar Super Singles), an American Vintage Fender 62′ P-Bass, a Callow Hill OBS 5-string, and a custom First Act Studio series Jazz Bass (from their custom shop). I’m currently also using Carvin basses and have a PB-5 on order with P+J pickup configuration. I guess the common thread between them is that they are all instruments with bolt-on necks.
Describe your musical composition process.
I don’t really have a process, per se. What I have been doing a lot of is using the voice memo app on my iPhone and the Photo Booth app on my laptop (or iMac) to document any random bits of musical information that might become useful at a later time. Eventually, I’ll sift through all of those recordings and videos, and combine the parts that might work together.
I also play guitar and drums, and I love programming in Logic or Ableton! Having time to mess around, and create, is part of that process, and I always find stuff that can be worked into some kind of idea.
I did something I’d never done before during the writing process for “Steve Jenkins And The Coaxial Flutter”, and that was make demos of all the tracks. I wanted to have the lengths and arrangements precise because I knew it was going to be an album of many different textures and sounds.
How does music affect your culture and immediate environment?
To me, music is an escape. It’s a place I go to create music that can either be strange, or explorative, or a means to simply make sounds feel good.
What would you be, if not a professional musician?
I really like photography and art… so, probably one of those two professions.
I also have a really quirky and dark sense of humor! So, I always wanted to try my hand at comedy writing, or stand-up. I have a good time riffing and just making-up funny things on the fly. Comedy seems harder to me than music and, maybe, even a little more honest in some ways.
What is the greatest sacrifice you’ve ever made while in the practice of being a musician, and how did that sacrifice affect you?
I hope this won’t come off as pretentious… But, for most of my career, I’ve been driven to be creative and to making cool music. For me, it’s never been about the business side of it, or caring what other people think. Some people are really great at this… But, I can’t pretend that something is good when it isn’t and I can’t fake-smile my way through music I don’t care about! I’m a straight shooter in that regard. Perhaps, I sacrificed too much time being rigid about my ideals, and that may have set me back a bit… because I can do much more than fusion and creative music.
Lately, I see being a musician (and being a bass player) differently than I did before. I just want to do a good job when my sideman skills are called upon and, when more is being called for, I want to play the right kind of more.
Describe your standing practice regimen. Also, what technical (and musical) aspects of your playing are you currently working on?
I do the necessary procedure to maintain my technique. But the bulk of my practicing now goes towards what I can’t do. I practiced chops for so long that I just do maintenance on it, these days. For the most part, I always want to get better in non-technical ways, and I want to have a sharp musical compass to guide my decision-making (process) while playing.
Lately, I’ve been revisiting “Giant Steps” a lot. I’ve also been learning music for the recording of Gene Lake’s new record (with David Gilmore on guitar) that’s happening soon. Gene’s music has lots of odd meter grooves, and I want my bass parts to be as greasy as the Meters and to sound open and simple so folks don’t know something is in 21/8. At least, that’s my goal…
What does music, and being a musician, mean to you – at the deepest level of your being?
To me, being a musician just means being able to express myself with notes.
Sometimes, it can be a deep thing… and sometimes its just entertainment. Both sides are valid.
How important is it to understand the Language of music?
As long as there is communication and cool ideas perhaps the rest might not matter so much.
How do you collect the series of seemingly random influences and articulate them through music?
I just hope for the best while not being afraid to experiment! That’s about all there is to it. I embrace all my influences and I’m not avoiding them.
Can music ever truly become commercial? Why, or why not?
I’d say yes… But, the terms ‘music’ and ‘commercial’ are subjective.