BMM: I noticed one of the attendees last night looked like she was hauled to that house concert against her will. She appeared to be dreading the evening, and yet you somehow flipped her switch by the end to the point she seemed to be having a great time.
Horan: When you come down to it, it’s about expectations. When I first started out I would get up on stage and apologize. When you do that, you set people up to be critical before you even start playing. I’ve done shows without explaining anything and will have people come up to me and tell me, “A friend of mine says you’re not playing the guitar, but it looks like a guitar. What is that? You were great by the way.”
I’d much rather just say, “It’s music.” People like music, and that draws them in. That’s why I prefer to play in house concerts instead of hitting the typical bar scene. House concerts work for me because A) it’s hard to get people to come out to a songwriter show wherever you are, and B) it’s hard to get people to come out to a solo bass show wherever you are; I’ve got both strikes against me. It’s outside what people are expecting, so they’re expecting it to be bad, and they won’t give it a shot. In a way, house concerts give me a captive audience…and any time I get a captive audience, I have a track record of winning them over.
Here’s some insight from a touring musician: You can’t follow the rules when it comes to being different. The whole time I lived on the road, I would send my demos out and do everything “by the book” to get a gig. The catch was, I would never get booked. Ever.
But any time I would just show up on my off nights to the open mics at various venues, my luck changed. People would see me standing there with a bass and say, “Oh, this is going to be terrible.” However, once I started singing and playing and doing my thing, people began offering me gigs on the spot. It’s a mindset that works against me, but house concerts allow me the opportunity to get around those preconceived notions.
BMM: Before we get to the heart of our conversation today (singing and the solo bassist), let’s get the obligatory gear question out of the way for the technophiles. Tell me a bit about your house concert set up.
Horan: I have a very basic set up. I have two five-string basses I use, an amp, a looping station, and two pedals. That’s it.
My main bass is now a custom bass by JC Basses out of Auburn, Calif. (http://www.jcbasses.com/sethhoran5.html). It’s a fantastic instrument from a young up-and-coming luthier, Jared Carpenter. All the pickups and guts were made by Nordstrand.
BMM: I noticed the fanned frets. What’s the purpose of that fret design?
Horan: It’s no secret that basses have intonation issues; sometimes horrible intonation issues, particularly when you play the lower notes together in a chord. When most people set up basses, they don’t do it with chords in mind, because most people don’t play basses that way.
But I use chords a lot, and needed a way to get around those intonation problems. I kept running into situations where I could play harmonics in tune, but when I fretted the instrument, it would be out of tune.
You have to realize that no fretted instrument in perfectly in tune. To be perfect, the low strings should be much longer than the high strings so you can get a truer pitch, ala a grand piano. It’s a matter of scale length.
Novax started making fanned fret instruments to try and address that problem, and other companies have followed suit. The fanned frets make the scale of the low string longer and the high string shorter, and virtually eliminate the intonation issues.
BMM: After playing a standard fretted bass for so many years, I imagine it might take a while to get used to moving around the new neck without stumbling.
Horan: Well, I’m still getting used to it. Like anything else, you just have to put a lot of time in getting your hand adjusted to the new shape.
BMM: And you’re still using your Warwick amp.
Horan: Yes, for now. For most of 2006 through 2008 I was the international bass clinician for Warwick so all I played were Warwick basses through Warwick amps. Their basses have an awesome reputation, and rightly so. However, I’ve toured for years without an amp and I just make sure I put good pre-amps (Aguilar’s OBP series) in my basses so I could have good sound control.
On the singer-songwriter circuit, you’re playing a lot of the same places that acoustic guitar players play, and they don’t use amps; they just get up on the stage and plug into whatever sound system is there. I found myself in that position all of the time.