Interview with Bassist Arran McSporran of De Profundis
A Voice To Be Heard – An Interview with Arran McSporran
At first glance, the name Arran Mcsporran may not seem familiar, but once this man’s Electric bass works hit your ear you will never forget what you have heard. His beautifully soulful approach, and inventive musicianship are what make Mcsporran stand out amongst your average bass player. From the age of 15, McSporran has been actively playing bass and has been a professional bass musician since 2007 upon graduating from the prestigious Academy of Contemporary music in the United Kingdom. He has toured nationally and internationally, playing gigs all around the UK as well as India, France, Germany, Romania, Belgium, Holland, Poland, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy and Portugal. He has played large international festivals and is regularly gigging in and around London and the South-East of England. McSporran is currently performing in the bands De Profundis, Seven7, The Separation and several function bands, including Barcoda. McSporran has also played and recorded with the reformed lineup of 80’s supergroup Statetrooper (featuring members of Weapon, Michael Schenker Group and Praying Mantis). He also performs session work (most recently for Estonian keyboard virtuoso Sergey Boykov on his progressive fusion solo album) and plays in other function and tribute bands. In addition to playing, McSporran’s independent record label, MGP Records, runs the fortnightly ‘Guildford Jazz Club’, which highlights new local and international Jazz music artists.
Mcsporran’s latest works in the dynamically immaculate De Profundis are perhaps his most recent claim to fame. With a new album in the works and scheduled for release by the end of this year, Arran had a lot to say on the matter as far as what to expect from the new recording. “Because I have been in the band for the full writing process of this album (I joined a month before the previous album was recorded), I have had much more freedom and time to write my parts and a few of the parts have been written around a bass line I brought in. So I think some of it will be different and very original, being written from the bottom up, instead of the other way around which would be more typical in metal albums. At the same time I always try to write for the song and not over-play as De Profundis is a band of dynamics – I can’t just jump into every musical gap with a bass solo! It’s all about tension and release and letting the music flow dynamically. This is my first recording with my new fretless Mayones bass, which I’ll be playing on for the whole album. I’m very excited to hear it in the full mix of an album! The songs themselves are a little bit shorter and we feel that our song writing has improved and evolved considerably. We have been on three international tours since the last album came out and we have been able to see what works live and what doesn’t. So we have also been using that as a consideration when writing the songs because we see ourselves very much as a live band.”
To say McSporran is a perfect fit for De Profundis would be more than an understatement
His Melancholic bass voicing’s breathe new life into an already established and cohesive unit. When I confronted McSporran about how he feels his stylistic versatility works into De Profundis (aside from what can be heard on the recordings), he of course had many words to exchange with me. “Mainly it gives me a slightly different way to hear what’s going on. I’m always very in tune with what’s going on rhythmically with a part, so I always start with that as a base. I then make sure I know what’s happening harmonically with the other instruments and then try to fuse that with the rhythmic element of the drums. Sometimes it will mean playing something simple and similar to the guitars, but often it will be a part that is rhythmically closer to the drums, and sometimes inverting or superimposing new harmonies under the other instruments. Because I have studied a lot of music theory, that really helps if a guitar riff comes in that someone has written by feel, because it means I can analyse the chord and sometimes go with it, or imply something else that can make it more interesting harmonically. Normally I’ll listen to the riff a few times and try to hear a rhythmic melody in my head. Also, because I have played so many different styles as a professional musician, it has given me a big wealth of different bass lines to influence me in my parts, whether consciously or not. It could be a walking line, a bossa, a funk track, metal, indie, pop, electronica or a musical theatre song that’s helped me write a part! Sometimes my parts don’t come from bass lines at all and are influenced by various solos or sounds I’ve learned on bass, which were originally played on saxophone, guitar, piano or ethnic instruments.”
Mcsporran’s fretless bass playing can distinctly be heard throughout the album and provides an additional aspect of colour to an already lustrous painting. His bright yet sombre tone and tactful approach to playing in De Profundis prove to be a force to be reckoned with. That being said I wanted to hear from Arran specifically if the fretless bass if preferred, and if so, for what reasons and why? He had this to say, “For me, and the way I play, it’s completely changed the way I see the bass as a musical instrument. There always seems to be more freedom for me when I play my fretless as I can control the notes better before, during and after a note is played. I also find the vibrato more expressive and it is easier to be subtle compared to a fretted bass – I find it more naturally reflects my own natural vibrato, if I am singing for instance. In fact I get compliments when I solo or play that it does sound like someone singing, which is exactly what I’m going for. I’m really trying to emulate the control of a wind instrument over the notes, as opposed to looking at it in a more percussive way, as many metal bassists would. It has also given me a lot of scope to explore other cultural music and tempering systems. I like to experiment with Turkish quarter-tone systems and scales, as well as emulate the glissandos of eastern instruments like the Sitar and Shakuhachi. It also allows me to explore and play along with the music of instruments not tuned in equal temperament, like the Highland Bagpipes.”
As a player of versatility, there is almost no job McSporran can’t handle. Having played with acoustic songwriters, jazz duos and trios, in rock and metal bands, tribute bands and even in cover bands, Arran is regularly performing a wide variety of different genres and styles. With such a vast “portfolio” of musical workings under his belt, I personally felt the need to seek out what he derives his inspiration from in all aspects of his playing, past, present and even his own technique. “I primarily use three plucking fingers when I play (although it can alter from just one to using all the digits on my right hand) and when I started, I spent a lot of time working out my technique methodically by watching Billy Sheehan, who inspired me with his fluidity and control on the instrument. Just spending hours running exercises across the strings, working out patterns and trying to get a solid, reliable finger independence. Ensuring when I was playing a string that none of the other strings could ring for example.
Now, when I practice, I find myself playing a lot of music not generally associated with the instrument! I rarely transcribe bass lines for my own pleasure, unless I want to use it as a study piece, because they don’t push me as much as learning something played on a non-string instrument (and ESPECIALLY not written with a fretless bass in mind). Also, because I can generally tell by hearing a bass line what is going on, I find I don’t really LEARN a lot by playing it, and knowledge is the thing I am most thirsty for when I practice. Most of the books I study from (and the collection is growing all the time) are written with other instruments in mind (trombone, saxophone, guitar, piano, etc). I read the dots and transfer it to my instrument, which can be extremely difficult and often impossible with the large fret-spacings and thick strings! And that’s what keeps me challenged. I am always transcribing and learning jazz solos, because I know I can use them to push me academically and technically. My knowledge of the neck has increased massively doing this, as well as my ability to play very intricate parts, because I have looked at the instrument from a musical perspective, as opposed to a finger-pattern oriented one – although this doesn’t mean I don’t have to work on creating fingerings that allow me to play some of the things I transcribe! I’m always thinking in intervals; ‘oh, the 3rd of an E7 chord’, as opposed to ‘13th fret G string’.
I am also always watching videos on YouTube and listening to music to see if there are some new techniques or sounds I can try to emulate on the instrument. Sometimes I’ll experiment with a ‘new’ bass technique I’ve seen someone do and will keep it or discard it depending on its merits. Most of the solos and things I’ve practiced, I assume, have never been played on the bass guitar before, and that’s what keeps me most inspired. Hopefully it will help me to further define my own voice over time. I really like, and enjoy transcribing and playing, the music of Allan Holdsworth, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Robert Fripp, Michael Brecker, Marty Friedman, Jeff Beck, Chopin, Debussy and others, and I hope their interesting note choices comes out a little in my playing. Although other bassists like Jeff Berlin, Michael Manring, Sean Malone, John Deacon, Tony Levin and John Entwistle really excite me with their originality.”
As a Bass Musician who is constantly on the go and always trying something new, there will always be a new musical endeavor for McSporran to tackle head on. With an ever expanding repertoire of projects I thought I would ask Arran what we can look for from him in the future. Presumably, he went on to discuss that “Apart from the new De Profundis album, which we will begin recording in November, I released the second album with my metal band Seven7 at the beginning of August, which has had some fantastic reviews and there were some very kind compliments on my playing. Once the De Profundis album is released in early 2012 we will be heavily touring the album in Europe and hopefully get another chance to go out to India too. If we get a chance to make it over the Atlantic, that would also be a really fantastic experience for us. There is nothing booked at the moment, but once the album is out we’ll be expecting to be on the road a lot. I recently performed on a keyboard player’s solo album, which is being finished at the moment and will hopefully be out next year with some very exciting collaborations on it. So I’m really looking forward to people hearing that! I’m also regularly playing around the UK with various other bands and groups.
With a new De Profundis album on the way and many other new musical projects on the horizon I wanted to see what exactly runs through his mind during the recording process, furthermore, what his overall approach to it is. “Because I’m playing fretless, I like to have a guide guitar track laid down for me to record to, mainly for pitching. But I like to just hit that groove and record with the drums, so I always make sure the kick and snare are the loudest things I can hear. I’m always listening for subtleties in the drums and I know in the recording process Nick (our drummer) will often come up with original fills, which I’m sometimes keen on going back in and overdubbing with a bass fill to give it more power and presence. I try to go into the studio with about 90% certainty about what I’m going to play, because the studio itself often inspires new ideas in me or drummers, so it gives space to adapt to any changes as they happen. The songs will be fully written, but I like the space to improvise some icing on the cake! I generally have a completely flat sound when I record and play, which I find helps my fretless really cut through in the mix and gives me much more control over the subtleties of the notes. My concept is that I want my bass to sound how it does unplugged – but louder! I like to let my hands shape the tone. Obviously afterwards, the bass will be mixed to find a good space among the other instruments, but I don’t like it to sound too far away from the originally recorded sound”
As our interview came to a close I saw fit to find out something about Arran that most people probably don’t know. Something per say aside from his bass playing that makes Arran McSporran the person that he is and what we hear from him through his music. That being said Arran left me with this “I did martial arts when I was younger, but was never interested in the competitive element, as I was more attracted in pushing myself to do what I had previously found impossible. Some time later I realized that the discipline I had gained from practicing the same exercise, for many hours a day, had transferred across to my bass practicing, which I found very interesting. I am also an autodidact and am always trying to discover more information about historical, philosophic and scientific topics that interest me.”
McSporran continues to forge his own style and voice on the bass guitar, even beyond those before him. With an ear for phrasing and sensitivity, and bass lines often riddled with a theoretical jazz influence, McSporran continues to carry the spirit of virtuosic and sometimes even experimental progressive rock on his shoulders and there is nothing that can be done to stop him. Then again why would we want to?