Welcome to Bass Mogul Magazine?
Perhaps a name change is in order to appropriately accommodate the work of Janek Gwizdala. The number of different hats that Janek wears – bassist, producer, author, podcast host, educator, website creator, social media expert, businessman, to name a few – is only overshadowed by the ease with which they are changed. When this interview was conducted, Janek had just finished a string of live dates with Mike Stern. After arriving home at 4 am, he was up by 9 am to start a day of working on his forthcoming book before being ready for this interview at 10 am. Another short delay was, “all good”, since it allowed him to, “lay into some more work managing the schedule”. When asked how he could maintain such a pace, Janek humbly dismisses the claim that his work ethic is extraordinary, saying, “I don’t want to sound facetious or anything, but I don’t sleep too much.”
Sleep needs aside, it only takes a few minutes of speaking with Janek to understand that the real fuel for all of his endeavors is pure passion. When Janek plays, this energy is transformed into solid grooves, awe-inspiring technical displays, and fascinating loop compositions. As an educator, the true love of sharing knowledge is evident in every lesson. In business, Janek blazes a new path of self-production, taking on the established thought that following the models of yesteryear is the only way to become successful. No matter what the undertaking, Janek uses his passion as his goal: “I’m totally happy doing what I do and I think I strive for that on a daily basis.”
Janek grew up in London, where he was home-schooled in his early years. At the age of 18, he attended the Royal Academy of Music for one year, opting to then travel to the United States and attend Berklee College of Music. After a short stint at Berklee, Janek took his talents to New York City. This move led him to work with a number industry greats, including Mike Stern, Randy Brecker, Pat Metheny, John Mayer, Hiram Bullock, Delta Goodrem, Jojo Mayer, Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, Peter Erskine, Bob James, and Marcus Miller.
Janek also developed his own music, releasing his first solo album, “Mystery To Me” in 2004. His second album, “Live at the 55 Bar” was released in 2008.
Many musicians would be satisfied with this career path: work with world-renown players and release a personal album when able. Not so for a bass mogul. In 2010, it became apparent to Janek that the business model he, and everyone around him, was chasing had become obsolete. Touring demands, financial constraints, and the theft of joy had become the norm. Rather than join the chorus of players complaining that the industry was “just too hard”, Janek employed hard work and followed his passion. The result? A wildly successful lesson website, three albums (“The Space In Between”, “Live in NYC”, and “It Only Happens Once”) created, produced, and promoted under his own terms, the ability to choose which touring opportunities to take, and, above all, a return to joy. As Janek explains in this interview, being a bass mogul is not about being naturally talented, it is about being naturally hard working. Above all, it is about following your passion.
Janek, thanks for joining us at Bass Musician Magazine. There is so much to talk about with everything that you do, but I want to jump right to the new album, “It Only Happens Once”. I understand that you went into this differently than your other albums – you didn’t take charts, you didn’t take notation, but you really let music and conversations happen. Tell us a little bit about the record.
Well, the embryonic stages of the concept for the album happened at a little gig at the 55 Bar in December of 2011. I’d been playing with Jojo [Mayer] for many, many years – 10, 12 years, maybe – and we have this great communication going on. I had more recently been playing with Mark Guiliana and I really wanted to hear what those guys would sound like together. I wasn’t actually aware that they had done that about a year before when we did this gig – Mark told me about it afterwards, I think. That was kind of the catalyst for it. We played a couple of my tunes on that gig, but that was essentially 85% jamming. That was the catalyst for the concept.
Then, as the hour of the sessions grew nearer, it was definitely in my mind that, “OK, I’m going to call these specific people. I know how they sound, what the timbre of their music is like, how they communicate, and how open they are.” It was more of a pre-production decision of who to call – that was the compositional element.
Once you got into the studio, how did that go down? Did you bring some melodic ideas and it really was jamming, then forming the tunes?
I personally didn’t bring a single melodic idea to the session. There was one groove that we had come up with on that gig back in December. Because I recorded that gig, I had a reference for it and that ended up being the track that’s called, “Straight Lines”. Other than that, everything else was made up on the spot apart from the two or three tracks that use backing tracks. We did have some synth loops, which my friend Dan Axtell pre-programmed. He pre-programmed about 5 or 6 things. I listened to them all and said, “Hey, I really like these two” and that’s what we used in terms of a starting point for a couple of songs that we could jam to.
How did you approach it from the bass standpoint? From the bandleader standpoint you’ve done the pre-production and you’ve picked the players. How did you go in and decide, “I’ll start my conversations this way”?
What I really wanted to do was explore the groove. I’ve never really gone into making a record on my own thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to have X amount of bass solos here and I need to display my chops or my melodic ability” or anything like that. This album was really even more so in that vein. I was like, “I really do not want to go in here and play bass solos.” And you know what? Some of the material that got left on the cutting room floor…one of the tracks had a bass solo on it. As soon as I listened back to it, I was like, “Wow, this is so not applicable”. It doesn’t speak to me anywhere near as much as all the groove stuff. I wanted to go in there and explore effects and the low end and subharmonics and a whole bunch of things that don’t involve playing lots of notes, basically.
On the new record, it seems like effects are starting to a part of your bass voice, part of your bass vocabulary. What led you down that path? Is this a new exploration for you or something you were just led to do?
Actually, ironically, it’s not. It’s something I’ve been into for years and years. Obviously I’ve had varying, different amounts of finance available to purchase some of those toys! So that’s something that the more successful I’ve been, business-wise, the more I’ve been able to explore and expand my palette of colors like that. But I think it was more that I just didn’t know how – I didn’t have a voice, I didn’t know what I wanted to say with those things. I just didn’t know what was really available to the extent that I do now. It’s a learning process, I guess, over these years. I think it’s something that I didn’t feel comfortable putting on a record yet, because I didn’t have anything original to say. I could have slapped on an octave pedal and sounded like 50 other guys who use an octave pedal on their records. That wouldn’t have done anything for me and I don’t think that would have done anything for my audience either. I’m using it in what I hope is a somewhat original way, especially in the blending of the subharmonic aspect as well. It just took this amount of time I think.
It almost seems like the studio sessions were experiences captured in different ways. Along with the record, you just released a trailer for a documentary about the sessions. I was curious, what were your thoughts with the documentary? What lead you to say, “I want to capture this event in that medium as well?”
Well, I think we live in a time of multimedia and I honestly think that the record – I was about to say the physical record and there’s barely even a physical record, but that aspect of the music – is sort of, for me, the bottom of the list of importance now in terms of the product and how it gets exposure. And I think that visually, the music or product or concept gets way more exposure than it does audibly and I think you can impact way more people if you do something visually. It’s a lot easier to understand than with something audible. That’s my opinion and my experience as well.
I think that a CD is a glorified business card. I’ve blogged about that, I’ve talked to people about that, and I talk about it in lectures, master classes, and clinics, and some people have taken it the wrong way. “Oh you’re just demeaning the process of making music – the making of music is sacred” and all of the rest of it. And I am absolutely not, you know. I’m just saying that in terms of the business structure of what the music industry has become, the CD or the audio product is not the pinnacle anymore. I think offering an experience and a much wider representation of what happened in those 2 days and what happened in the process of making this new album is going to give you much more mileage.
You have moved toward self-promotion, self-doing, self-creating: recording your own music on your terms and releasing it with a ‘pay what you want’ fee structure. Is there something you are moving away from, or something you are moving toward?
I think it’s both. I think I’m definitely moving away from an outdated business model and I’m moving toward, like you said, being my own enterprise or empire or whatever you want to call it – a kind of a portal, if you like. I produce a lot of video, a lot of audio, and it all kind of sits in this one portal. I think the most important thing for me is to communicate what I’m doing to people and be open and honest about it. And not be like, “me, me, me, me, me”, but, “This is what I’m doing, this is how I’m doing it, and why don’t you try doing this as well?” And the world, and especially our small corner of the music world, will be a lot better place for a lot more people.
There are no record labels anymore. That sounds like a pretty broad statement but the reality is that there aren’t. You know, when you look at what a record label that exists right now is going to give you in terms of a deal, you should laugh and run in the opposite direction, because they’re offering you 18% and a budget which is probably a 50th of what it would have been 20 years ago to go and record your music. If you know anything about renting a studio and hiring musicians and getting a mix done and getting a master done and having those CDs pressed, you know that you can do the whole thing for under $10,000. So it’s a very, very simple process at the end of the day. And I guess that right there, I hit on it: it’s a simple process. It should be a lot simpler than people make it out that it is. Once people understand that, they’ll make 5 times as much art, they’ll have a much better following, they’ll be happier people, and their little world will thrive as a result.
You are very much a proponent of the idea that, “This isn’t a hard process – don’t buy the hype. We need more people doing this so that we can fill the world with art.” You will be releasing a book in June about self-promotion that has the working title, “Beyond Next Month’s Rent”. I’m guessing that the book talks about the hype myth and outlines your ideas on self-producing art?
Exactly. You know, I make no secret that what I put in this book is not particularly original. Marketing people have been using these concepts for years and they have adapted with every change in the industry and the economy in the world over. The only reason I convinced myself I should write a book: I was only going to write the book if I had something original to say. I didn’t want to bullshit people and take 10, 15 bucks off them and it just be a book they could have gotten that was 10 years old, the same kind of thing. So my original take on it is exactly what you said. It’s the fact that I am sharing this; I’m sharing from the point of view of a musician. I’m not a marketing guy. I’m not writing a book as a person who sits in an office and analyzes numbers and tells you what you should be doing. I’m telling you what I think will work for you and what has absolutely worked for me and then giving examples of how it’s worked for me over the past, you know, 5,10 years in my small career. At the end of the day, when you finish the book, I’m not trying to sell you a service. I’m not trying to say, “Hey come and sign up for the Gwizmon Media marketing pack for $10,000 and we’ll promote your band all over the world”. Absolutely not. It’s the, “Give a guy a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a guy to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime”. It’s that kind of concept. Use these small, almost all free, very simple tools that are available to anyone with an Internet connection and a smart phone, and you can prosper – that’s my concept. Like you said, making sure people understand that they shouldn’t believe all the hype and that they should take control of their own destiny, for better words. That sounds kind of dramatic!
I’m curious to see what the immediate reception has been to that idea? Has there been a lot of push back from the “old-school thought”?
I did and it’s a bit of what I was hinting at.
It was one phrase in that blog post that he wrote, that had he not written it, I would have just let it go and been like, “Okay, whatever. Nobody’s going to pay any attention to this”. But he wrote something like, “It’s so hard for the younger generation to make money from music these days”. That is what killed me, because I was like, “Hold on a second John, I am the younger generation!” Compared to John, a lot of us are still the younger generation because he’s 70 years old. He’s done everything. He had the glory years of playing with Miles and having major record deals and touring all over the world and all that kind of stuff. As soon as he wrote that, I thought, “Wow. A lot of people are going to read this and this is going to be impressionable to them.” That was kind of the catalyst for it all. That’s just hype right there, an old-school way of thinking. And yeah, there have been reactions like that, especially about giving music away. There was another blog post I wrote – there was some piano player in Los Angeles that did an open letter to LA club owners. I couldn’t disagree more with what he wrote. I wrote a pretty strong blog post about if you have something worth listening to, people will come and they will pay for it. You need somewhere to develop that.
So yeah, there’ve been a few little blowbacks, but what I’ve found so far in the responses I’ve had, the overwhelming responses have been, “I’m 20 years old – HELP! What do I do? What can I do to enhance my chances of being successful in doing what I love?” It’s all I needed to hear and I think that is overwhelmingly the majority of the responses so far. I kind of ignore the negative stuff and try to build upon the positive stuff as much as I can.
Another part of your empire, so to speak, is http://www.videobasslessons.tv. It seems like you were in that space where those responders are now. You were touring, you were gigging, and there was some good and some bad. There were also things like home life and touring schedules and other things that you wanted to control. How did [the website] start from being in that spot?
You hit the nail on the head. I mean, I’ve been on the road for the past 15 years pretty much every year – many, many, many shows – multiple hundreds of shows. It’s one of the big things I talk about in the book: you can’t buy experience. So as much as I talk to people about, “Hey, get out of this rat race and get into your own game”, there is also that element of experience that you cannot buy and you cannot manufacture for yourself in a short space of time. So I do talk about the balance of that, but the balance of the scales just tipped for me. I was on the road for 10 ½, 11 months back in 2010, pretty much straight the whole time. I played like 300 shows and dealt with things that were less than optimal for my sanity – one of them being coming home at the end of the year without any bread, having worked my ass off for almost a year. So that was something I needed to fix. I got back off the road that year of touring and I sat down with my wife and we both said, she said it first but I had already thought it, we’re not going to make it if I go out another 10 months on the road and we don’t see each other. So it was just that personal happiness and well-being comes for me a long way before any of the other stuff. You know http://www.videobasslessons.tv and magazine covers and great gigs and touring all over the world – that’s all secondary, being human is the primary and being happy is a part of me being human.
I had this podcast since about 2007, so it’s going 2 ½, 3 years, or something like that and it got a really good following. Tens of thousands of people all over the world had downloaded it and checked it out. It was a free audio podcast and I looked at the statistics from that. I thought that if I monetize this podcast in the smallest amount – for 99 cents each – and I had a hundred thousand downloads, I could actually make some money out of this. It was the most epic business fail ever to think in those terms, because you don’t ever want to under price your product, but I knew nothing! I made videos, instead of audio, thinking that enhanced the level of content would encourage people to pay 99 cents apiece. I did that and you know, I got a hundred people to pay for it in the first couple of days and I was like, “I made a hundred bucks – this is cool”. And then the next few days it was like 30 people and by the end of 2 weeks, maybe 200 people total had paid for it. My good friend Bob Reynolds looked at it and he said, “What the hell are you doing, man? Why don’t you have a website and have a membership?” I knew nothing about it. This is the beginning of December 2010 and he, for 2 or 3 days, taught me how to program and do basic HTML and how to use WordPress. It was the beginning of December and I launched http://www.videobasslessons.tv on Christmas Eve that year. Then I spent the next 4 or 5 months working hard on it and not going out on the road and making a conscious effort of staying away from touring and really working on this business. And you know, I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve turned it into a 6-figure income and I did that in under 10 months. I don’t ever say that to be, “Hey look at me – look at all the money I’m making!” I say that to say, “Hey look at me, I knew nothing! I’m borderline illiterate, I’m totally dyslexic, and I never went to school as a kid. I knew nothing about programming or the Internet or marketing or social media, really up until that point!” It’s possible for anyone to do it if you put your mind to it.
You mentioned Bob Reynolds. You recently worked on his latest record. How did approach that session? The album is coming out soon, correct?
It should be out in September. So, the funny thing was that I was doing that album the same week that I was playing that show with Mark Guiliana and Jojo Mayer at the 55 Bar, so that was an interesting week all around. Not only that, but my bass-playing life on an instrument changed that week as well. I knew ahead of time that John Mayer was going to be on the record and although I had met him a few times, I had never worked with him. I was definitely conscious that all of the guys on that record were going to be exceptional, because I’ve worked with all of them before and I knew they were going to come into the studio with super dedication and open minds. What I didn’t expect was for John to be even more so than that. That was a big surprise to me, in how dedicated he was in getting it right. I kind of knew a little bit about him going into the thing, but I really wanted to be on my game and almost not playing my Fodera bass and just have a P-bass with flat wound strings on it to get into that different head space in playing songs.
So, the big thing that happened for me that week in the studio was I walked into the studio and I said to the engineer, “Hey I have a P-Bass with me and I have a Fodera and a few other things” and I said, “Do you have a shitty old bass in the studio just lying around? Like a beat up piece of crap that I can just throw some strings on to get a different sound that I like?” They came out with Jim O’Rourke’s, bass player for Sonic Youth, Fender Musicmaster that he had left in the studio about seven years previous to that. I put a set of nylon tape-wound flats on it and cut the whole record on the bass. It was insane – changed my life. I cut half of my new record on that bass as well.
Oh yeah, yeah. So that was huge for me. You know, I’d been playing that music with Bob for so long that I didn’t really have to pay too much close attention to detail because we’d been paying so much attention to detail for so long with those songs that I was able to go in there knowing the music so well. That’s such a luxury, to go into a record and know the music that well. It was awesome! So I could just listen to Bob, I could listen to the producer, and I could listen to what was going on around me and really sit in the mix. You know, I just remember when I heard the masters being happy about how the bass didn’t overpower the record. It sat perfectly in the right place in the mix and it served the songs.
Another recent project is playing with Mike Stern – I know you just came off the road with him. When you play with Stern, what’s your approach there? He obviously has a long discography and there are several bass players that have played with him.
I think first of all it is not getting overwhelmed by all the other people that do that gig. I don’t do that many gigs with him, especially not on the road, but when I do, people are like “Oh, what happened to Tom Kennedy?” I have to explain to them that Mike changes the band a lot and it’s Victor Wooten and John Patitucci and Anthony Jackson, etc. So the first thing for me is not getting overwhelmed by the fact that all of my heroes are standing exactly where I’m standing and play that music all the time.
When I first played with Mike, just at his house years and years ago, I knew every single one of his songs and I knew exactly what he wanted from a bass player, just because I had listened to him so much and had checked out so many bootlegs of so many live shows. So I don’t think I have a conscious concept of what I do with Mike when I go into play with him, because it’s just something I’ve been doing for so long, even before I was actually playing with him.
I think that’s why I’ve been hired by Mike and by other people, because I really do check out the music in a big way. I learned half a dozen tunes off of Mike’s new record that we didn’t even play for this last trip we did to Chicago, but we jammed them on the sound check and Mike was like, “Whoa! I never played that because nobody ever learned the music, but we should do that on some upcoming tours!” It just little things like that where you give the music and the artist the respect that they deserve and the communication opens up a mile wider than what it was before. People really remember that kind of stuff. I don’t go in there with a subharmonic and an envelope filter and three distortion pedals – I know how to play super, super soft. I mean, I don’t think I’ve played this quiet in a long time than in the last 4 gigs with Mike.
In the trailer for the documentary about your recent album, you say, “We’re human before anything else. There’s all these other things we do before we’re a musician. I think that’s a big step for any musician’s life is being able to let go of what you do.” Is it fair to say that that is really your view of the artist?
Yeah, that was a life-changing moment for me, you know. If ever there was an “Ah-ha!” moment in my life, I guess that was it. I was like, “This stuff really isn’t as important as I think it is, you know. And it will become far more revered and popular and have more appeal when I let go of it and when I put less pressure on myself to produce it.”
I think I got really lucky that each time I made a record, as different as they’ve all been, I’ve been able to be in a place of, “Okay, what do I really want to do?” Not what should I do or what do people want me to do. I’ve been really fortunate with that. Just let go of it all and as soon as you let go, all of these things start coming back to you 10 times stronger than you could have ever have started. That’s what I’m experiencing now and I have been for quite a few years.
I’ve just kind of figured that out now and studied it as well. All this stuff we do as musicians – we study records: “Oh yeah, you’ve got to listen to John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’, you have to listen to this Pat Metheny record, you’ve got to listen to Arvo Part symphonic suites, blah, blah, blah.” Well, there’s this guy named Tony Robbins…he’s got a lot of great things to say. It was people like that, for me, that was like, “Ah, okay, you don’t have to take yourself too seriously. There are other things going on in the world, you’re not the center of the universe.” Share, be honest, be open, and it’ll all come back to you. There’s no negative recourse for positivity, I’ve found. The less negativity I can put out, the less I’m going to get back, so it all grows in a positive direction.
So, your new record, Bob Reynolds’ record, http://www.videobasslessons.tv, the podcast …
I have 2 podcasts actually. I have the original one, which I haven’t done too much, but I’m planning on launching a few more over the next couple of months, which should be cool. And I do a podcast with my friend Justin Vasquez called “The Live Archive”. I don’t know if you’ve checked that out?
Yes – It’s so cool!
Well, it’s just our process to listening to music. We’ve hung out for years and just listened to music. Fast forwarded to the good bits, talked shit about it, and moved on to the next thing. So we’re like, why don’t we make a podcast out of this? So every few months we go down to Texas and record a ton of shows. So yeah, there’s a podcast, a blog, everything – it’s all there. http://www.janekgwizdala.com. You can find it all.
Thank you so much for this interview. Just listening to this dizzying array of stuff, I’m sitting here going, “Man, this guy is busy!” I truly appreciate it!
It was my pleasure. I’ve got all the time in the world to do stuff like this. This is what it’s all about, man. It’s about conversation and having open communication – about people getting the right information. There’s nothing worse than misinformation, because that leads people down the wrong path. It gives people the wrong idea. The more I can say, “Hey this is me, this is what’s going on, here it all is, come and join in”, the better.
Janek Gwizdala proudly endorses TC Electronic Amps, D’Addario Strings, and Fodera Basses. He invites readers to visit http://www.janekgwizdala.com to sign up for his mailing list and receive a free video lesson.