Victor Wooten has commented, “If I were going to study improvisation at this point, I’d do it with Mike Pope.”
After two solo CD’s and countless tours, we find there’s still much more to come.
Jake: You’ve received many accolades from noted players, especially for your improvisational skills. Could you give me a brief synopsis of what you’ve focused on as far as soloing goes?
Mike: I guess a brief synopsis would be that I’ve spent most of my time trying to figure out how to play what I want to play. I haven’t spent a lot of time figuring out what to play. Most of the time someone will say I want to learn theory, or I want to learn how to solo more, and it’s a waste. It’s enough of a challenge to try to figure out how to get the music that’s in you, out of you, as far as I’m concerned. So that’s been my focus, maybe not consciously, but that’s it. And in retrospect, everything I’ve done goes to that end.
Jake: I find when I talk to players of your caliber, that I’m always interested in the “how”.
Mike: How to get to any place that’s yours…. well…. obviously there’s a lot of luck and chance involved in any of it, there really is.
Let me put it this way. Lets take two guys that practice like crazy until their 25 years old, and one guy goes out and starts working with a bunch of heavy people and gets tons of experience, and goes out and plays, and the other guy spends just as much time at home practicing, working on what he wants to work on. The guy who’s out there playing is going to get better, and those are the breaks.
There’s a thing that happens when you’re out playing in real life with different people that you can’t simulate at home. So when you are hearing about this guy that doesn’t play with anybody, but he’s “as good” as all these other great guys, I’d almost never believe that for a moment.
There’s something about being out there and playing with all the great guys that makes that group of players better. It’s purely a skill level thing. There are lots of people with tons of talent, but that doesn’t mean anything. Talent doesn’t get you anything. Skill makes you able to do what you do. Even if you’re a very talented guy, you can’t rest on those laurels.
Jake: I understand your point. You did a tour with Al Dimeola a while back. I know Anthony Jackson held that chair for a while, so I’m going to guess it was a rough book.
Mike: No, it really wasn’t. He called me for that date two days before the first gig, and I drove to his house that night and pretty much read through everything. It was hard, but it wasn’t crazy. I was off the book in a few weeks and had everything memorized. There were a lot of lines, but nothing a pianist or a violinist wouldn’t have down quickly.
Jake: What have you done that “has” been a challenging book for you?
Mike: The Chick (Corea) book was highly challenging. Probably the most challenging book I ever played was with Roland Vasquez, and that was a book that was written for Anthony basically. He’s a drummer, and an interesting writer, and everything was super complex–complex to the max man, a major butt-kicking book.
Jake: So what would you suggest that a player have under his belt to handle, and be able to actually compliment a book like that?
Mike: There are not many bass players that could handle and compliment a book like Rolands. Understand, that book is an anomaly; it’s almost harder than it needs to be sometimes. In spite of the fact that the bass player should be about pocket and groove, and part of the whole, at the same time if that’s all your focused on, your probably not going to be able to play a book like that.
There’s a lot more to music than just what a bass player does, and of course in this day and age, what’s required of a bass player is becoming more difficult because there’s more and more people out there that can do material that’s not that easy to do.
I think one of the real keys is to extend beyond the bass, beyond what its normal parameters are. You should set your own parameters of what the instrument should do. You can practice and do what Pattituci did, a lot of legit cello material on bass, that certainly gets you around the instrument really well. But at the end of the day, it has more to do with how you approach the instrument in general as opposed to what you practice. It isn’t about your hands quite so much as about how you approach the instrument, how you perceive it, and how you see yourself playing it.
Jake: I know you’re fairly proficient on piano as well. I’m guessing that’s been helpful, and has impacted your bass playing to a degree.
Mike: It’s been incredibly helpful. I can’t think of anything that’s more helpful to my bass playing, other than my bass playing. It’s a whole completely different perspective, and I continue to learn more and more as I play and challenge myself more and more.
The thing is, there’s a lot more pedagogical material out there for the piano than the bass, especially the electric bass. There’s a lot, a lot, a lot more out there, and if you go back and look at the European piano tradition, you can see what those people are capable of playing. I’m talking about the great pianists of all time, the Rachmaninoff’s, etc., and in more modern times, players like Vladimir Horowitz. The things that these people were capable of on their instruments make everything that every electric bass player ever did look like a joke.
The level of ability on their instruments, and what they’ve archived, has shown that what we have done on bass has not even scratched the surface yet of what can be done. I probably won’t be the guy to take it there, but you know, there are guys going in that direction. Victor Wooten, Matt Garrison, and Jeff Berlin are all very accomplished technicians, and look hard at the traditional approach of the instrument.
If you look at the body of work that’s out there to support the piano or the violin, and the traditions that have been established in Europe on how to play these instruments, there’s nothing even remotely close to that out there for electric bass at this point. There will be I’m sure, but not now.
Lets take something that doesn’t really get talked about too much, the mental process of playing on any instrument. There has been a lot of research on this. One of the most significant books that was written on this was written by a guy named Arnold Schultz. He was a piano teacher in Chicago, and he was actually my father’s piano teacher. He wrote a book called “The Will of a Pianists Finger”. It talks all about the mechanics of playing the piano, and also about the mental process of playing the piano.
One of the most revealing points that I got from this book was, you really don’t have direct conscious control over what your muscles do, and as long as you think that you do, then you’ll never get it. Any movement that your body makes is not under a conscious system. If you’re trying to directly control movements, you’ll do a very poor job of it, and you’ll have a lot of problems being consistent and accurate. It’s more a matter of willing things to happen and learning how to train your motor nervous system. A lot of people call it muscle memory, which it isn’t because muscles don’t remember anything. That term is a complete misnomer. What they mean is motor learning, and that does not take place in the muscles, it takes place in the brain and in the nervous system.
It all has to do with the way the motor system coordinates a complex set of movements. You have to understand how to teach it. Your motor nervous system learns exclusively, not inclusively. As a baby, you don’t start off not moving, then learn to move what you need, you start off moving in a very uncoordinated and uncontrolled way and as you repeat steps of movements that you want to achieve, you learn to do away with the movements that don’t have anything to do with what your trying to get done. And learning to play an instrument is the same way. It happens through repetition, and this isn’t a matter of opinion, its just physiology. It’s very simple and it’s all very documented, and it’s all very true.
But I think a lot of people out there like to jump on the fact that this means that we don’t have control over what we’re doing, and it’s wrong, we do. It’s a different kind of control.
There are people that call it ‘getting into the zone’, or ‘getting into a certain kind of vibe’, whatever, but the truth is and what really happens when you’re there is that it’s sort of a nervous coordination. It’s when all your systems are operating. You’ve got your conscious mind which is kind of your conductor, and it’s delegating all these instructions to the motor nervous system, and the nervous system is dealing with what it takes to get it done, because it’s set up to be able to do it in a highly proficient and precise way. As soon as you start trying to rap the conscious mind around that in the middle of a set of movements, like I’m going to make my 3rd finger go here, that just screws the whole thing up. It’s a lot more complex than that, but that’s sort of the general thing of it, and I’ll tell you man, this is the stuff that really great classical pianists have known about for years. It’s where most of the great ones are coming from.
But it hasn’t quite made it to the word of modern music, particularly improvisational music, and that has something to do with the fact that improvisatory music has this whole other set of mental processes that are actually thinking, what the hell do I want to play?
It’s not a matter of learning a piece, and training your hands, it’s also another component, but it still applies…. its harder, a lot harder actually. It’s a concept, I guess, that in today’s context is in its infancy. A lot of people understand it in their own way, and obviously there’s someone you can go to and listen to and realize that they understand it, and it’s the way it lets them play there asses off, you know what I mean… They always get it, but they’re not necessarily getting it other than just the way that it applies to them.
I think it’s a concept that applies to everybody in some way. It’s like a variable absolute if that makes any sense. You’ve got an absolute right way to play, and an absolute right way to think, period. In order to get your musical impetuous across, there is an absolute right way to play. You can’t say well, this is how I like to do it, or this is how it feels right to me, ultimately there’s an absolute, but there’s a variability in who it is that the absolute applies to. For this guy, there’s an absolute, and it’s up to him to find it. You can learn it, and you can key it to happen every single time. But I think a lot of people would just sort of leave it up to chance. Fortunately, a lot of times it works out, but a lot of times it doesn’t.
Jake: Understanding that each individual will react, or shall I say hear your thoughts on this differently, how much of this might you present to a student—what would you have them try to play?
Mike: There are exercises that I’ve done with people that I can get them to grasp onto right away. If I can find something that somebody’s having trouble playing, or trouble playing up to tempo, I just sit down with them and ask them to play it, and ask them to concentrate on what they’re doing…. this is what I want to play, and I’m not going to concern myself with how to play it, I’m going to focus on what to play. Actually it’s a small thing, but it makes a difference because it establishes a little bit of a disconnect between your conscious thinking, and what your physically trying to do. This is a disconnect that you want.
You don’t want to be forcing yourself to be playing it a certain way so much, and you can still teach yourself to play it a certain way if you work on that… do you know what I mean? You’ve got to establish that sensation of a disconnect between the conscious thing and the motor nervous thing. Think about how many complex movements are involved with standing up, walking into the bathroom and blowing your nose. There are an incredible number of very fine motor skills involved with that.
It comes naturally to us because it’s all part of everyday life for us, and it has been since we’ve been little kids. But if you thought about trying to actually, consciously make every one of those movements happen, there’s no way, that’s crazy, it could never happen. And the point is that the physical act of playing music is the same situation.
Jake: Final question here. You’ve mentioned that you’re about to finish building your studio, and have plans after that to start recording. What do you plan to put together for your next CD?
Mike: I’ll keep this short — I could make a long answer to this also, but I won’t. The short version is I’m going to do a Mike Pope record, and not try to make it into anything in particular, or try to necessarily conform to any sort of rules and regulations in terms of how records are supposed to be done. I’ve got a lot of material and some really cool ideas. I’m going to play a lot of electric and a lot of acoustic. There will be more bass on this album than the last two, in the sense that I will be a little more present melodically, and I’m going to play a lot of piano on it as well.
Jake: I’m sure it will be great having your own studio.
Mike: I’ll leave you with one point that will probably be helpful to people. If your thinking about spending money and making a record, it makes a lot more sense when you look at what it costs to make a record, and what it costs to promote a record, to consider taking that money and investing it into recording gear. The costs add up if it’s not on your own gear, and the likelihood of making anything on this is virtually nothing. Even the major artists generally don’t make that much money.
So if you invest in your own record, and cost out what that would be over several records, the records become a lot more economical number one, and number two, you can really put out a body of material. I really think that’s important to have more than a record or two out there. Keep throwing stuff out into the market even if it doesn’t get promoted heavily, because eventually, you’ve got 5, 6, 8, or 10 records out there, and then you start a little promotion push, then you can kind of promote everything all at once. It takes a while to get there, but in my opinion it’s the only thing to sort of do to promote a solo name.
You really need to have a lot of stuff out there. That’s where I’m kind of going to get this record made–get the studio built and at least make a record a year. That’s more or less the idea.
Jake: I’m looking forward to hearing it.