Bassist supreme and educator Steve Bailey has been one of the mainstays in the bass community for decades, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down. He and his long time friend and cohort Victor Wooten have been taking their Bass/Nature camp to new heights on a regular basis, coordinating the camps unique instructional approaches with many of the top universities…a very progressive move in the educational realm.
Beyond that, Steve released his latest project, So Low, a challenging solo undertaking playing six string fretless without any editing at all, which has received a ton of noteworthy (forgive the pun) praise. In my opinion, there are very few players that have a true command of the fretless, and Steve would be on that very short list.
If that’s not enough, he has two more solo releases in the works, a compilation of duos, as well as a concerto written for 6 string fretless and orchestra. My respect definitely goes out to him for pushing the boundaries in a time where it’s probably never been more challenging to pursue Art for Art’s sake. This is the mindset and these are the kind of efforts that I feel keep the “Art” of what we do alive and well. Check out his CD, and enjoy his thoughts in this interview.
Jake: To begin with, it’s difficult not address your long-standing relationship with fretless and where you’ve taken it, both artistically as well as technically over the years. Your voice is completely unique, and I’ve always considered that a one of the toughest challenges. Can you articulate what your process of development was like over time that helped you achieve that voice per se?
Steve: First of all, Thanks! In many ways that is a tough, and yet easy question. I have always loved the sound and possibilities of the Fretless. Of course I listened to Jaco, and Percy Jones, and (matrix bass player). There were not many others that were coming from a melodic place at that time (mid 70’s). After running over my fretted bass with a Toyota I found myself forced to play fretless, at least until my fretted was repaired. (Stuart Spector still laughs about the bass that was sent to him from a kid in SC who ran over his #007 NS Spector)
Anyway, the more I played it the more comfortable I got with it and realized that, just like on the upright, I needed a very disciplined left hand to “really” play in tune. I loved Jaco’s tone, but that was not where I was coming from. And later on, when I was at UM, I got to know Jaco very well, and we played together many times. I won’t go into the LONG story, but it involved a jam with Jaco, Teen Town, and my not knowing it, which culminated in Jaco saying to me, “Steve, that’s why I invite you over to play, because it is not like playing in front of a mirror.” Everyone in south Florida played Jaco’s tunes, some even banged out Donna Lee faster than he could, but NO ONE was as musical.
After that compliment from him I kind of went out of my way to NOT sound like him, and never learned Teen Town. Ha-Ha.
Jake: You were a schooled player for years, hitting both the University of Miami and North Texas State. With the diversity of educational techniques that happens at Victor’s Bass Nature Camp, which I know you’ve been involved with, (as well as understanding that “every” player is unique) where would your stance on the pursuit of musical education be these days?
Steve: Yes, I come from an “academic” background, and that is one way to “connect the dots”. Vic never went to “formal” school, but he had 4 music teachers in his older brothers, and they started him at two years old.
Vic learned Music the way a child learns English, by listening and mimicking, eventually creating ones own sentences to express ideas and communicate. I, like most people, learned music the way that the vast majority learn a second language, a little later in life (at 12) from some great teachers. I think there are many ways to get from point A to point B. Most of my focus though, is at the Academic level, and trying to bring some of our Bass Camp thinking to academia.
We are working with University of Miami to get Bass/Nature Camp offered for college credit.
Vic and I have taken these concepts to many universities, with great results. In September we are back at Stanford addressing the entire incoming freshman class, using music to teach about “community”.
Jake: I know you’re also busy with online lessons (education) as well. Do you find your online lessons being different in structure at all, and do you feel “online” represents more or less the new teacher/student paradigm?
Steve: Well, so far I do not do extensive Skype lessons or other online teaching. Vic and I had The Bass Vault for a couple of years where we did more of that kind of thing although ours was more “clinic/masterclass” oriented and not so much one on one.
I think, thanks to technology, that this is where it is headed though. I can teach someone in Tokyo or Moscow in almost “real time”. Besides the Bass/Music/Nature camps that we do, almost all of my teaching is done at the university. I really like that because I usually end up with a student for 4 years…plenty of time to do some major things.
Steve: Yes, it is called Fuss on the Buss. It was a blast producing that. At the time, I was not yet playing Warwick basses, but was using the Hellborg Amps and a very cool ABG called the Alien. All I can say is that hanging with Larry G, Bootsy, Jonas, TM, and all the rest was about as good as it gets. Fuss on the Buss 2 is coming this fall, filmed and recorded in San Francisco. Here is a description of the event that I wrote for the Warwick newsletter:
New York City…A tour bus…Eleven of the world’s finest purveyors of the BOTTOM END… A few video cameras, and a Pro Tools rig! Throw it all in a blender, mix in a little luck with the weather, and what do you get?
FUSS ON THE BUSS.
When Jonas and HP hit me with the idea of doing a photo shoot in NYC, I was an immediate “absolutely”. They then told me who was going to be there… “Bootsy, TM, Larry Graham, Ryan Dimartinie, John B Williams, and more to me announced” Jonas said. I started thinking about this, and given that I have had pretty good success getting bass players to play together (check out Bass Extremes with Victor Wooten, and Bass Player Live in LA and NYC) I thought, MAN, maybe we can get a jam going on somewhere in NY, maybe the hotel…a club? HP said we are going to have a bus at the photo shoot location and my mind went BAM!!! So I loaded up the Pro Tools, mics, cables, etc….
8am call in the hotel lobby? No Way in the world are we going to get a bunch of Funksters, Jazzers, and Rockers; just ain’t no way to get those fingers moving that early in the AM. All I gotta say is TM is the ENERGY!!! He is an excitement catalyst, and next thing I know we haven’t even left the hotel and we already have TM and Jonas in the can. Everyone is making their way onto the bus and we take off for Brooklyn, destination, the DUMBO district, (Directly Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) still jamming in the back.
Makeup is going on, hair is being styled, and Funk is going down in the back of the buss. After we park under the bridge, it just gets better. Larry picks up a bass and starts thumpin; Bootsy walks in and says “What’s all this Fuss going on back here”? Little did I know that this would be the title of the DVD, because at that point we were just recording and filming for FUN…maybe some internet content for Warwick?
Well, as you will see on the DVD, it got hotter and hotter in there. Divinity throws down a serious Rap, free style! Brandino hurts it!!!! At 9am! TM and I are the background vocal section, just wingin’ it as we go. (Check out Ryan’s “butterfly”, named after that SICK right hand stuff)
John B had just picked up this bad-ass 5 string fretless, so we had to work that in. And speakin’ of John, you gotta hear what he did with Hansford… “Uncommon Man”!!!
You can see from the pics that we were having a good time. Bootsy and Larry KILLED it…. DEAD!! Tina and Patti were an inspiration, and these guys threw… it… down!
Meanwhile we are shooting a bunch of pics with the great DAVE on the shutter, and having a blast blocking traffic, getting yelled at, signing autographs, all the “normal” stuff that goes on in NYC!
Rory was on it with the big video camera and we all had our Flips a Floppin. Norwood…wow, he came up with a groove, this 16th note octave thing that was Sick, Sick, Sick. Before I know what’s happened, everyone has laid it down, well everyone except the recording engineer, ME!
You gotta remember, this was not meant to be a DVD, just archival footage. But I know there was magic going down and got so wrapped up in making it happen that I just forgot to play. Oh well, well get it later at the hotel, and off we head in that direction still pumped from the energy of the day.
Jonas, Ryan, John B, and I headed to the Cooper Square hotel bar! We set up some basses and amps, a pro tools rig and off we went again, Jonas and me, just creating some textures, grooves, and solos. We were having some fun and running up a 1000.00 bar tab!!! And I was drinking club soda! HELLO!!! Anyway, by the time we ran out of Champaign, we had some more goodies in the bag and the plan is to get the whole gang together that night for dinner and THIS is where it all WENT DOWN.
I was sitting across from HP, next to Jonas, with everyone else hangin, eating, and drinkin’. Still riding high on the adrenalin from the day, talking about how great it was, and having already listened to some of it, I knew it was good, and magical! Then HP SAID IT…if it is THAT GOOD, and, we have good video, “lets make a DVD”!! And FUSS on the BUSS was born.
I took the audio back to my studio in Myrtle Beach and started digging through all the goodies, and man, we have enough music to do 3 albums. So I start digging through it, mixing and matching the great performances, and throwing in some of Jonas and me in the interludes.
For 9 straight days I edited and mixed, tweaked and cut, and finally came out with 22 minutes of humpin’ stuff. I knew we needed a cool intro so I called BOOTSY and said “Bootsy, this is ‘little brother’, we need something from you that will knock this thing out of the park”. We talked some about the concept, and a couple of days later he says check your email, and MAN…FUSS on the BUSS was BORN.
I edited that in and did a remix for the outro/credits, then sent the soundtrack up to NY for Rory to cut the video to fit. He stepped up and did a slammin job, and with not one day to spare had the finished product off to the manufacturer, just in time for NAMM. This is something that has never been done in the Bass World… Check it OUT!!
Jake: Speaking of Warwick, tell me about your new signature bass you’ve developed with them.
Steve: I have known the Warwick folks for 20 years and have appreciated their basses for as long. I have owned a streamer fretted and fretless six since 94, and in 95, they made me a 12 string bass that I used with Tull…(2×6) it is an amazing instrument. I loved my fender signature bass, and I still do. But I longed for the feel of being with a company that was more “accessible”. Warwick, although it is a fairly large company, feels like a family, with both the Artists and the Builders. It is all due to the fact that Hans Peter treats everyone like family.
The older I get, I realize that relationships are more important and more durable than endorsements. The feeling I get hanging with the Warwick people was what made my mind up to not renew my Fender contract. Many have said that “I must be crazy to leave Fender”. I probably would have said the same thing 15 or 20 years ago.
I will say that Warwick was able to do in a matter of days, what took years with Fender. I spent time at their factory in Germany and watched as my ideas and specs became a reality, thanks to Marcus Spangler, in minutes. I certainly do not intend to disparage Fender, as they are a great company, but, I love seeing things come together quickly and accurately. We had an idea to make the fretless fingerboard out of Snake Wood. It is beautiful, and quite a bit harder than Ebony. One rarely sees a fingerboard made from it as it is expensive and rare, But the sound is amazing, great sustain, and response. I was also really missing my Fundamental Fretless Basslines pickups, so we incorporated those in there as well. And a stainless steel pickguard, well, because I could!!. It is great onstage as you can use it like a mirror and blind folks in the audience. It’s a wonderful instrument from a wonderful company.
Jake: Backing up to your inimitable “voice” again, your latest solo release, So Low, which I enjoyed very much by the way, is a splendid example of the artistry and technique I was referring to early. What inspired you (beyond a push from Victor) to go after a project like that?
Steve: Well, I was due for a Solo project after several Bass Extremes things, and I knew that I always wanted to do solo arrangements on the 6 string fretless…not for the faint of heart.
Truly, it was the most difficult undertaking I have ever attempted…no pitch fixing, no editing, and no overdubs. Late in the game I decided to add Weather Report hand drummer Robert Thomas, who has always been one of my favorite musicians.
Steve: I am still hearing mainly the same players that have been around for a while, although there seems to be a market for Bass Music, and a lot of interesting new things coming out. I hear a track here and there that makes me say “who is that”? But not as often as I think I should. There is still this vanguard of “old guys” that are still kicking BUTT!! Matt, Alain, Gary, Will, Stanley, Marcus, Brian, Jeff, Anthony, John, Victor, and many more, are all “first name “ players to me…they do not need last names to identify them.
Jake: Let’s move on to what I would term as the way different structure of the music “business” these days. With the tremendous amount of history you’ve already established within most every aspect of this side of the Arts, what are your feelings about how and where this business is going?
Steve: Man, I love the way things are today. I embrace technology and feel that in many ways that the “music business” is thriving. There are so many new ways to generate revenue.
The “old way” that the record business ran was designed to screw us, even while making money for us. There is a new sense of Entrepreneurship that is necessary to “make it” these days. This is about much more than just playing well.
Having said that, I am glad that I was a part of “my generation” and not coming on the scene now. The technology has increased the range, but “lost the focus”, meaning in the old days, it was simple, you had to move to NY or LA and start the fight. These days you can be anywhere and still be viable, to some extent. Now there are millions of videos of amazing performances on YouTube. There is such a deluge of it, that in some ways it is becoming Passé. The local gigs in NYC still pay about the same as they did back in 83 when I moved there. LA is just as bad and there are much fewer places to play in both cities. Players used to get “discovered” at clubs and end up on movie soundtracks and albums… that just does not exist anymore. All of my university students understand the need for a “well rounded” education which includes Technology (recording, editing video, etc) and Music Business.
Jake: It seems like you’ve always kept a good balance in your life with alternative activities beyond playing…surfing, biking, etc. How important has keeping that balance alive been for you the individual, and you the artist?
Steve: BALANCE, is the key word. Staying physically healthy has always been important to me. I enjoy physical things like surfing, tennis, skiing, and running. I also enjoy spending time recording and mixing in my studio. I have played with a lot of folks in a lot of styles. I also love variety.
Balance, moderation, discipline, and a good sense of humor, have kept me happy for a long time.
Now that I have a family, everything else moves down a notch as that takes priority. BUT, there still has to be a good balance of all the things I love. I still travel a good bit as well. My wife quotes a great Willie Nelson lyric quite often… “How can I miss you if you never go away”?
Jake: What’s coming up for you as of late that we should know about?
Steve: I am writing this after an exhausting day here at Bass/Nature Camp. I love these kinds of things, especially this one. Now that we have our own property here, there are lots more camps going on.
I’ve got a FUN European tour with Lee Sklar and Jonas Hellborg coming up in the fall. There are two new solo projects in the works, one of Duos, and another is a concerto for 6 sting fretless and orchestra. Both are about 75% completed. Look for them in early 2012. There are also waves to be ridden, racquets to be swung, and much fun to be had, including teaching my daughter to surf!!