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SA With Martin Simpson: An Interview with Barry Irwin


SA With Martin Simpson: An Interview with Barry Irwin

Meet Martin Simpson

I met Barry for the first time, around 2002 and invited him down to a South African Bass Players Collective meet to give us a workshop. Barry’s complete mastery and total command of the instrument had us all enthralled and most of us will probably remember the evening for the rest of our lives. Like Pino Palladino and Lee Sklar he oozes musicality and like my friend Concord Nkabinde, Barry sees himself as a musician who happens to use a bass to serve the music – which essentially, is a place where we, as bassists, should all be living! Barry talks the way he plays – no nonsense – take it or leave it – that’s the way it is. I approached Barry in September and asked him if he’d like to do an Interview for this magazine and his response was “hmmm, let’s see how it goes”. Lucky for us, he sat down with the questions I posed and because of his vast experience and knowledge; he was able to give us this incredibly insightful and very enjoyable interview. [Martin] How long have you been playing Barry? [Barry Irwin] I picked up the bass in 66, and have been a “low life” ever since.

[Martin] How did you get started? [Barry Irwin] One thing usually leads to another. I studied piano as a kid with Muriel Inch who taught at CBC in Kimberley. My lessons were at 6.40am. I used to freeze my ass off on those cold winter mornings. I did Trinity College of London exams for a few years. Then the Beatles came out and we all wanted to play guitar. My cousin, who was a very talented guy, taught me chords on the guitar and we would all play Beatles tunes and all the music of that era. I was also the lead drummer in a boy’s brigade, which actually led me to be a drummer in a band called the “Sapphires”, before I played bass. Everything felt very natural as a young boy playing music, unfortunately, my family discovered that I was slipping out the house on weekend nights to play in hotels and put and end to my drumming ‘career’ I guess someone ratted on me because I was 11 sitting at a kit of drums with a beer at my side. For a few years I didn’t play anything but piano, which we had at home.

At about 16, I got this call from my mate to play bass in his band. I knew nothing about playing bass but having studied music and having played guitar, I figured “why not?” That band didn’t go anywhere as we never gigged, but it gave me a taste for the axe. A few months later I was playing with a guy called Al Bentley who had done some recordings and was trying to make a comeback. We would play the odd gig here and there and “pleasure resorts” on the weekends (to this generation it probably sounds like a porn factory but it was just a place outdoors where people would go on weekends and lots of bands would play. That didn’t last very long either, but led to a band called “Birds Of A Feather” We won a national band competition sponsored by Lucky Strike Cigarettes. The prize was $100 and a tour of concerts on some military bases around SA. That was pretty freaky at the time as we all had long hair, and back in 66/67 it wasn’t sociably accepted.

I remember walking out of a café in some little Afrikaans town and some kids with their mother started to scream when they saw us. The mother assured the children that we would not eat them. It was a real transition time in SA. We still had students jumping over the fence at RAU to cut peoples hair at peaceful rock festivals because they didn’t approve. Birds Of A Feather ended up playing at a club in Rosetenville called the 19th Level, which was very successful back then. I joined “Freedoms Children” a few years later, and was privileged to replace Ramsay McKay the bassist/songwriter and contribute to the 3rd album. As much as I enjoyed playing with that band, and the recognition it received, I always wanted to play more kinds of tunes.

We would visit a place on tour and if there was a band playing in the hotel I would be jealous of the bass player because he was playing more tunes than I was. It didn’t matter that our band was more famous. When I joined Omega Ltd. In Salisbury Rhodesia I pretty much got that chance to play a lot of different pop tunes. I also spent a few years doing the Swaziland/Botswana cabaret circuit where I worked with a lot of different international acts. On returning to Joburg n ’74 I got a chance to be the bassplayer in “Godspell” where I replaced Arthur Stead as MD when he went to the US. A few years later Arthur came back to SA and Cedric Samson and I managed to persuade him to hook up with us and we started a band called “Scandal”. When Arthur went back to Boston we got Lionel Pillay and Josh Sclair into the band. I stayed 6 months or so then left for the US at the end of ’76. (Nippy Cripwell took over on bass) So that’s pretty much how I got started. [Martin] What are the instruments you currently use? [Barry Irwin] These are the basses that I still own but have been replaced on the gig by just one, my MTD 535. I would still take the P bass to a Motown or blues gig as that’s tradition and the sound, but the MTD is always a safe bet if I’m not sure what kind of gig it will be. The MTD can really manage them all. All my basses are US made.

MTD 535.
76/77 Musicman
62 Fender Precision (original)
77 Fender Jazz
50-year anniversary 5 string Fender jazz.
NYC Empire bass. (Fodera)
Lackland 5 string.
Lackland hollow body- designed by Michael Tobias.

[Martin] What instruments would you like to have if money were no object? [Barry Irwin] My MTD 535 is the last bass I will own. If money were no object I would get another one. I played 3 Classic Tobias basses in the 80’s and 90’s and felt that they were great instruments but for me something was missing. Whatever that missing subjective sound was, the 535 sure have it. It’s really the best sounding, well-rounded bass I have ever played. Not to mention the fact that Michael Tobias is there for people that own his instruments and he really does make his own instruments, which is more than can be said about most companies out there today. I highly recommend his instruments. [Martin] What have you been doing for the last five years or so? [Barry Irwin] 5 years ago I was living in Vancouver BC. I took a year off from playing and spent the time writing music and trying to focus on who I really was as a musician. I love writing and that’s what I spend most of my time doing. It’s a form of therapy, the way I analyze and keep in touch with myself as a musician. It’s a direct reflection of what’s going on with me all the time. To earn a living, I work on cruise ships which in the past allowed me to do all the writing I wanted, but that time is getting scarce as it becomes more corporate and musicians are seen in the same light as dish washers, where you need to put in your 30+ hours a week. When I retire from playing I hope to earn a living out of writing, but for now I am just spending the time writing for the sake of producing material. I play 30+hrs a week at sea. I spent years doing that in South Africa, and New England and other countries I have lived in. It makes me feel like a working bass player. I have no complaints with that. [Martin] What recordings that you’ve played on would you recommend for listening? [Barry Irwin] None. Earlier recordings have no relevance to my playing today. Also, a lot of what I did in Boston was never released, as it wasn’t commercially viable. I was never interested in commercial recording as I discovered that someone else always made the money and I never felt a need for fame. There are many studio players and other great bass players that have dedicated their lives to the craft and to the bass. Listen to them. On electric bass in the jazz and fusion world there’s Richard Bona, Steve Swallow, Carlos Benavent, Anthony Jackson, Marcus Miller, Jaco Pastorius, Victor Wooten, Gary Willis, Victor Bailey, Jeff Berlin, John Patitucci, Christian Mc Bride and many others, like Brian Bromberg, who is such an unbelievable player on both the electric and upright. A major inspiration to any serious bassist, irrespective of style. He has covered an amazing body of work, which deserves serious listening attention. He epitomizes a bass player that has studied the likes of Stanley Clark and Jaco Pastorius but has gone on to discover his own voice, which he delivers with authority.

If we’re talking bass then we all need to lend an ear to this guy. I dedicated my life to music more so than to the bass. I just happen to have played it as a profession for a very long time and have been fortunate to do so. Now that I have finally bought a place to live, I will spend the next few years compiling a library of the music I have written and performed over the years. There will probably be lots of stuff to listen to then. Today we have so much technology at our disposal that it’s possible to project one’s own personal statement as a musician. That might not make me “great” but it will reflect who I truly am as a musician. Lets face it when you listen to Mozart you hear Mozart. You don’t hear Mozart with a middle section written by Hayden. Musicians were truly musicians back then. Today what usually makes albums great or for that matter even a concert is the collective thing rather than the individual. I will never be a master but I can achieve my own vision statement. To many, that’s frightening, to me, that’s also what it’s all about. Don’t get me wrong two minds are greater than one, but my point being that getting Ron Carter to play on my album will probably get me to sell more albums, but it certainly wont make me a better bass player or musician. I think I would very much like to hear a solo album done by Wayne Shorter reflecting his life work. How amazing that would be! [Martin] What’s been the low point in your career so far? And what has been the high point? [Barry Irwin] Young people in this generation have high and low points in careers. To me and a lot of my generation of musicians, playing bass or being a musician was not about highs and lows. Growing up playing music was not about thinking of a career, but rather about just wanting to play. Speaking about getting paid was often embarrassing. I never wanted to discuss money. I just wanted to play. The high points and the low points of my “career” happen on the gig. It still does. Standing up on a stage with great musicians does not necessarily make you great, nor is it particularly a high point in your career. Rather, the power to connect will make you great and be the high point. How often does that happen? Someone else usually tells you because you’re too busy trying to take care of business to even notice. Highs and lows are just perceptions. It’s like a note. Once you’ve played it, it’s gone. [Martin] What are your goals currently? [Barry Irwin] To live in peace.
To become more attuned to my creator
To keep writing and staying creative.
To love respect, and show compassion.
To be beholden to no one (if that’s possible).
To follow my heart and always be true to my self.
To be healthy, and be the best musician and husband I can be. [Martin] That, to me, sounds like ‘The seven commandments to self’ – if we all had that approach to life, this World would be a much healthier place. Any advice for younger bass players? [Barry Irwin] As a young bass player Jack Bruce influenced me. There were others like John Entwhistle (probably the first bass solo on a rock tune with the Who’s “My Generation”) and Chris Squire. They were very different in there approach to the bass and there different styles inspired me. Back then the air was thick with those amazing bass lines on the Motown records. Later I found out that that was James Jameson, and Duck Dunn on a lot of the Stax stuff. Tower Of Powers Rocco Prestia was another influence. “There was also female bass player Carol Kaye that played some great bass lines on late 60’sand 70’s recordings.. She has some bass books that are still wonderful studies in the art of line and riff construction. It’s a certain era of commercial bass playing that had a lot of creativity. They are well worth studying and enjoyable too. As you learn more about the bass it obviously leads to more listening and when it came to Jazz it was Ray Brown. There were 3 bass books back then. A classical book (Simandel), a contemporary one written by an English bass player (He wrote “What’s New” that became a big standard) and Rays book. I studied out of Rays, but it would be years before I would have a chance to use the stuff I learnt there as no one I knew played jazz.

When I started to become more interested in Jazz it was more listening than playing like the ECM stuff, with Eberhard Weber and Gary Peacock playing with Keith Jarret (who incidentally is still my favourite pianist). Ron Carter was doing a lot of stuff with Herbie Hancock, Miles, and a lot of other people. When I first got to Berklee in Boston I thought that I was going to be playing all the Return To Forever/Spain stuff we use to play in “Scandal” at the “Branch Office” in Joburg. I figured that was how I was going to progress. Well I was wrong. I ended up playing and studying people like Paul Chambers and Charlie Parker. I got into the Bebop thing and that taught me a lot about what people like Jaco and Stanley and all the great bass players were doing. Studying with Charlie Banacos didn’t hurt either. What an incredible teacher!

I guess you just have to follow your dreams and often you will be amazed. Don’t keep looking back, and try not to hang on to things, or be too judgemental. The world never stays still, nor do we, as people. Change is inevitable. Trends and styles come and go. The key is to keep learning and studying music. Study harmony, writing and arranging and study the bass itself. Learn piano. Take lessons. There is a big difference between being able to play the bass, and to be able to play a bass line on the bass. Both, and a lot more are required of a good bass player. For me there are only two types of music, that being good and bad. Keep an open mind. Music is a life long study. It’s not just about the bass. It’s the bottom to the top, and the top to the bottom in all music, which is our main concern when playing or listening. If you can’t commit, don’t go there. One day, feeding your family will be really important and being a musician is not the easiest path to choose. It’s a hard life that requires commitment and dedication but it’s a fulfilling one.

If you are not a renowned player at 30 you probably never will be. That’s no reason not to play, not everyone can be Scott Lafaro or Charles Mingus or like the guys I mentioned. Those are all very gifted individuals, yet each and every one of them put in the time they needed to. If you have music in your heart and soul you will do whatever it takes to succeed. At the same time being successful is being able to live with you and love yourself in a healthy and non-selfish way. There will always be someone that plays better than you. Be happy that you have someone that you can learn from. There may be a lot you can teach that person too. One more thing… If all you do is play solos on your bass then your gigging days are numbered. If all you play is bass on your bass then you will have a number of gigs. It’s your choice how you want to do it.

(A message for the New Year)
We live in an age of manufactured news. An age, one step away from a break dance, or just losing everything we have. Everything is so blatantly in front of our noses if we choose to see it. The wars we fight. The people we kill, the soldiers we bury. This, that, and all the other of life’s doings. So many places, so many times. A busy schedule of life and death of fashion, music, movies, religion, media… CNN. “All the best of the best, doing the best for the best” It’s all become a big part of our reality and has to a certain extent shaped what and how we think. Even who we are, and how we feel. It’s time for individual thinking, not to be provoked to ascertain some comprehension of a well-polished piece of crap that’s irrelevant to our being. In some ways we may have become a society of sheep. Individuality has been misplaced. We all need to take a reality check from time to time. What a big surprise it can be. Life throwing you that curve ball that says “wow! I really have been living in a bit of a dream world. I do have a responsibility as a human being to at least strive to achieve greatness in what I do, and in who I am, to speak out for the betterment of humanity”(Even at the expense of being misunderstood) It’s not just the work of an artist, a musician, a painter, a poet, or thinker. It’s everyone’s responsibility. Our world needs us as much as we need it. We can make a difference in such simple ways by just committing to thinking. But it’s also important what we think, our actions and words. We have the tools to do that. Why not use it. You’d be surprised at how well we can control our own lives. So sing your own tune, do your own dance. Write your own music and live your own life. Respect individuality. We can then take a big step forward, and take our world to a better place.

BBI. [Martin] Barry has sent along 2 pdf files (download below), which are part of a condensed score of a piece he wrote for this bass article. It is a scored for 2 basses in octave unison, a 3rd bass playing the ostinato bass pattern. The piano part can also be played by 2 x 6 string basses (or a marimba), so it’s possible to have a total of 5 bass players playing it (which would sound very cool). An acoustic bass should play the ostinato bass pattern.


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