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SA With Martin Simpson: An Interview with Graeme Currie

Meet Martin Simpson –

Graeme is without doubt, South Africa’s busiest bassplayer. He’s involved in projects constantly and doesn’t have to sit by the phone wondering when the next job will come his way. One of the reasons for this is probably his extremely likeable, easy going personality, intelligence, friendliness and humorous attitude towards life, creativity, and, most definitely, his groove. I became great friends with Graeme from the moment we first met back in 2001. I think he must have swallowed a dictionary sometime in his past as you’ll see for yourself from this chat I had with the man at the beginning of 2009.

How long have you been playing bass Graeme?

33+ yrs. I bought a new Yamaha teardrop-kinda-shape Bass for R68 (35quid/55dollars – 1975) on my 17th birthday having never played an instrument before. Inspired by a friend of mine, who played Flamenco guitar, and Golden Earring’s “My Jangeline” (on the turntable at the time), we talked about forming a band but never did! I remember confirming: “I’ll play Bass!” (beams)

What other instruments do you play?

Guitar – for compositional purposes. I also compose and/or arrange for rhythm section, horns and string quartet and woodwinds if necessary. (reflects)

Do you come from a musical family?

No-one played an instrument but we all loved music from The Beatles, Elvis, Sinatra, to hits of the day.

Who are the musicians that have influenced your career?

I was turned-on to the sound, feel and how the Bass could move a song at age 10 well before I was even interested in playing. In 1968 I was watching Top of the Pops on TV, and Joe Cocker doing ‘With a little help from my friends’ blew my mind! As far as Bass Players are concerned, I totally dug Gary Thain with Uriah Heep – Uriah Heep Live Album – when I first heard them at age 13. The Bass Players of my favourite bands Deep Purple, Slade, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone had an underlying influence. Then after I started playing, Miles, Stanley Clarke, jazz-fusion band Matrix, Jaco, EWF, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Paul Jackson, Dave Hungate and Marcus were inspiring. Tony Levin is probably one of my most favourite players and Peter Gabriel my fave artist. Level 42, Megadeth and Disturbed are in the mix too along with my love of Acid Jazz. But there are just so many – Burt Bacharach, Cole Porter, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, ELP, Herbie Hancock. Gino Vannelli, besides his incredible songs, voice and phrasing, has had a huge impact in influencing my knowledge of harmony and composition and my theoretical premise. But further, any Bass Player who ‘plays the song’ has my respect. I’m into bands and songs more than I am into solo bass artists and techniques.

What formal training have you had?

In the early days I used to try and transcribe tunes for my original band to play, and informally studied Royal School of Music gradebooks. I later attended Berklee College of Music (for the professional player’s token 1 semester!) where I studied (Harmony 4/5) under the great Ken Pullig, then 3 years at North Texas State University (as it was called at the time). I was awarded a scholarship to the University of Texas, Arlington, while I stayed in Denton. When I moved to Los Angeles I attended L.A. Recording Workshop on a part-time Producers course. On returning to South Africa, I completed BMus Hons at the University of Cape Town under Prof. Mike Campbell who was at NTSU with me. I am currently pursuing a Masters degree under Darius Brubeck at the University of KwaZulu Natal. I have been teaching at a college here in Johannesburg for the past 11 years where I have developed courses, the gem being the comprehensive Songwriting syllabus and series of Bass Masterclasses. I was Head of Dept. for a number of years but opted for part time again due to my heavy workload. But, probably the best lesson I have ever learned is the discipline of Theatre playing. This is arguably the best training a musician can receive – performing the same set of music night after night, week after week, month after month… Theatre performance breeds stamina, concentration, consistency, attention to detail, technique, understanding and concept, respect, etiquette and humility.

How would you describe your approach to playing?

My heart and the song lead me when I play. I approach bass playing from a compositional standpoint. One that is ultimately musical in a commercial sense. I never had a serious teacher in my formative years and therefore missed out on being disciplined to practise much of the foundational knowledge that I later chased when I realised that this enterprise could surely become my profession! I make sure all of my students are fully equipped with the fundamentals but enjoy the freedom that I had – ‘of creating by listening’ (recollects). That’s what I aspire to the most, seeing that I consider myself first and foremost a ‘songsmith’. (affirms) I am a true doubler too and half of my workload is playing Double Bass no matter what style – ‘Music’ is what I like to call it as opposed to the barriers some narrow-mindedly label as jazz, pop, country, etc. (frowns) But let’s not confuse the issue, ok? This is the music business! (laughs and ponders)… and marketing occupies a huge slice of the pie of professionalism. I equate marketing one’s self to image, the other two principles of professionalism being attitude and ability. These three categories can be sub-divided into many intangible skills if one wants to learn to succeed in this business. Talent is what you’re supposed to have. Hard work in the form of motivation, determination and desire, are developed.

What instruments have you owned over the years?

All types of 60’s and 70’s Fenders, most of which I stupidly sold in the USA in the 80’s when they weren’t as popular as today. I had a few Modulus Quantum 5’s in the mid 80’s. But, I play Fender – always have, always will! That sound and tone is in my hands and ears and the traditional ergonomic design is keen to my eye and seems to complement my tall, slim body!

What are you playing currently?

I play Fender, period. However, I love the sound and feel of old instruments with their ‘history’ and playability and have collected a few old Yamaha’s, Ibanez, Modulus and Tobias. The Tobias I picked up in 1988 from Mike when he had his small shop on Cahuenga Blvd in Hollywood and I had to provide a written motivation as to why I wanted the bass! I have a bunch of new and old Fenders: a ’63 Jazz,’ 68 P Bass, ’96 Roscoe Beck 5 string which is my main bass, new 5 string P Bass, Marcus Miller 4 and 5 strings and a ‘bling’-cherry FMT 5 string with gold hardware. Everyone knows I play Fender and I am hired for ‘that’ sound. Its ‘voice’ fits into any idiom or style effortlessly. My upright bass is an original 5 string Kay (with a high C). I also own an old German flatback that a friend gave me. She said her husband lent it to Ray Brown when he was on tour in Germany long ago…and far away!!!

You’re also an endorsee of certain products aren’t you?

Yes, I am a contracted Fender Electric Bass endorsee (www.fender.co.za) Suits me fine as I have said! I have Fender amps too, a TBP-1 bass preamp, 800 Pro head, Pro Series 15″ speaker cab, and a ’64 ‘blackface’ Bassman with 2 12″ cab that I have had since I started playing. I am also partly sponsored by Ampeg and own the B2RE and Portabass 800 heads and a BXT 2×10″ cab. I repeat that I play so many different styles of music that sometimes I may want to take a specific rig and Bass to the gig. But I admit that I am a bit of a ‘gear-head! Sometimes I may have an amp setup at different gigs (like one at a theatre) if I’m rushing around!

What projects have you been involved in over the last five years?

Really, So much! I am very fortunate to be a ‘first-call’ player and get booked for Theatre Shows, Orchestras (mainly as rhythm section), corporate-event function show-bands, jazz, pop and contemporary rock bands backing all sorts of celebrities and stars and wannabees. I am musical director of 3 or 4 other bands which play all kinds of styles/ tunes. Then there’s my band, Atmosferic, together with incredible singer and co-writer Wendy Allen. We do many corporate events and private function gigs and have just launched our website – www.atmosferic.co.za – incorporating original compositions and our show design/concept.

I also do recording sessions for albums, jingles, etc. but am selective in the albums I am hired for because I’ve done the sausage factory thing where – “if there’s no mistakes, it’s a take” thing: but I’m far too passionate and conceptual and have always preferred to get ‘into’ the music whether or not it takes 1, 2 or 3 takes!
I am also one of the 5 founding members (of which Martin is boss) and a spokesperson for the SABPC. Log on to www.sabassplayers.com to check out this exciting site.

How do you approach studio playing as opposed to live playing?

Boy! I still get RLF (red light fever) at times. It’s a challenge. Moving on – they’re supposed to be one and the same right? Music!? Live, you’re reacting to audience response and fellow band members. The music is instantaneous and then dissipates. In the studio you can tend to get hung up more on something that’s just passed that you didn’t play as you hoped. One learns to combat this and concentrate on the now and come back to fixing as a drop-in ‘coz other band mates might have done a great take. But when I’m going, I’m listening and responding with that high, still, inner energy one develops for studio, not thinking, working in symbiosis with the voice and other instruments. Sometimes I’ll request to re-record my whole track (which could have ‘sucked’ Ha Ha) while the rest of the musicians, producer and engineer are listening back in the control room. Luckily I’m usually given consent as I have built up enough trust in people to let me do this. Yes, the pressure is on but this really works for me, (and, thank goodness, for the producer too… (Relief)) I’m able to fully focus and will have had a take or so to check out what feel works where. If I am working at a studio on say Protools/Cubase with an engineer only, then we can drop-in at will. Frequently the bassline is written and your main skill becomes interpretation and projection. When working on a new live studio project I like to listen to the demo songs first without bass in hand and “hear” a bassline as it fits in with the melody, being flexible enough not to impose my signature on it if it’s not required. Also, being receptive to insight and criticism from the Producer and/or Artist will do you justly. Then, when I get in to record, I transpose the idea in my head/ears onto the fretboard of the chosen bass (OM) and may rework it according to how the song accepts my idea…or maybe that I can’t possibly play it!!! (gulps)

There is an unseen skill that one develops – a more physiological skill that comes from overuse (hey!) and experience on the bandstand – an innate ability/sensibility to arguably provide the right bassline! Bass determines Style and Form, right? Two more of our primary professional functions.

What are your upcoming gigs and goals?

An Atmosferic album the way we do the standards – acid-jazz style. And our original compositions with the hope of getting them on a European compilation, then tour Europe maybe on some festivals or the like. Again, playing on and Producing ‘Bluesmaster’, Dan Patlansky’s new album. Then the launches and hopefully European and US tours with him (laughs). Remember that although I live in the most beautiful country, it’s in the ass end of the world!!! So, naturally I would like to get out and get involved in the high standard and professionalism of the scene I surely do miss, but, what a super-cool life – to do what you love …. I was in The Seychelles 2 months ago for a week, snorkelling, sun tanning and hiking. Oh! Did I mention that I had to play on the Saturday night!!!!! (humbled)

I am also involved in a partnership writing Pop/contemporary tunes, one of my favourite styles ‘coz to me, that’s the ultimate ART! (most closely related to painting.)

One thing about having a heavy workload is that it is more difficult to focus time and energy on your own thing. It is in a player’s blood to play! You’re in the trenches all the time but have to be aware of your identity becoming unseated. I am in the fortunate position of having somewhat of a choice in what gigs I accept, not that I turn work down. It’s all part of the design though! You create your reality.

Being a first-call player is certainly a privilege and would you believe humbles me to the core… as well as boosting me with the confidence to do something I truly love. This status becomes enlightening as it is weighted with pressure to perform. “You are only as good as your last gig.” One is stimulated to perform constantly at a high level of consistency and creativity thereby promoting longevity.

Business is the other primary facet of the music industry and over the past few years while I have been rewarded greater financial success thru my understanding of the business of music, I have been investing in property. This enterprise keeps me focused on my professional playing career as I potentially have to balance many elements to keep everything ‘alive’. This responsibility encourages me to flex my creative muscle and in turn fuels my desire and passion to play, lifting me further towards freedom, openness, truth and satisfaction.

What is your take on the state of music today?

I think the state of music today is fine. There is so much creativity and access. I don’t mind the fashionable and disposable song coming and going as fast as it elbowed its way in! We all live at a fast-paced lifestyle and this is the music of our enduring generation. The standard of playing across the board is of a better level than when I was growing up and the ‘greats’ continue to release inspiring music. Production quality is high-class reflecting a superior sheen in all the businesses it supports. We are at an ever-escalating technological evolution with a strong bond to our past as TV documentaries and re-issues continually remind us. I was lucky to grow up with the music of yesteryear and am privileged to be still enjoying it along with today’s new memories. (glints..er..blings!)

What advice would you give to a youngster starting out on a music career?

There is no voice that speaks as loudly as that which has an identity! Play! Play! Play! And invest in an experienced teacher to guide you through the fundamentals. And concentrate. Concentrate! That builds discipline and enables you to get into the zone quicker! And learn to sight-read in order to accumulate, imitate and assimilate information. Thereafter it’s in your court to innovate. Remember that there’s humour in life…and music. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Things are just what they are – It is what it is! Too much importance is placed on intangibles…I feel!

It’s very difficult nowadays to regularly play gigs and clubs as there is not that much out there. When I first started playing I was doing 7 nights a week, 3 or 4 sets a night at clubs, restaurants, hotels, dives, etc. honing my craft. Most times in the day I was doing sessions, teaching, practising with bands and then in the holiday season playing on the beachfront entertaining crowds by backing comedians and variety performances. Then I’d also do the occasional pantomime. I really cut my teeth on the bandstand as opposed to the practise room and that’s where my expertise shines through nowadays in leading a band and making things happen! That is why Bass is the most appropriate instrument for me. The role of a Bass player is that of a leader, the primary function of which is support. I always had the attitude that if the band isn’t happening then I took it upon myself to make the music happen by shifting the groove, raising the energy level, digging in or playing less or differently. And all that, is purely about Listening.

And in conclusion?

It’s been a privilege to have played music and hits from the 1800’s through to the 2000’s. I have gained an insight into the art of bass playing. This experience shapes you and tends to give you a greater education than any college ever will, as much as that offers you the tools. I play bass now because I can – it’s what I know! It’s what I love to do. One has to keep reinventing oneself in this business and look for niches to corner the market. The great thing about the music business is that there are no rules and thus you are able to influence your future. As a bandleader I am continually observing and assessing the attitude of the audience and am able to adjust the songlist to sustain the interest of the audience and keep the energy of the band poised. One of the reasons for my success is that I play for the entertainment of the people. That is how I began my experience in music – I was listening to bands that were playing songs that spoke to me.

I also believe that you never stop paying your dues. The more I play, the more I realise how much more I need to play to learn and improve (surrenders). In the meantime, I play the bass. I am the Bassman!

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