South African Bassist: Interview with Kai Horsthemke by Martin Simpson… I first met up with Kai in 2001, when I was in the process of getting to know other bass players in South Africa that might be interested in getting involved in putting a South African Bass album together. The fact that Kai Is German and I’m English, was completely irrelevant as the project was essentially aimed at bass players LIVING in South Africa as well as the wonderfully talented locally born bassists. The project didn’t get anywhere in the end as politics messed everything up, but the monthly meetings we held to discuss the idea enabled the South African Bass Players Collective to come into being. Kai, along with myself and Concord Nkabinde, was a major driving force of the S.A.B.P.C. and many great things came about over the next decade. Kai has been incredibly busy with an assortment of projects over the last few years and I cornered him last year and insisted that we really must do an interview to allow him to share his wisdom with everyone else that exists in our special, Low Frequency World.
What does the bass mean, Kai – to you, and more generally?
You know, Martin, there is this Fellini film, Orchestra Rehearsal, about a symphony orchestra rehearsing in a doomed building – actually the demolitions begin while the rehearsals are on. Anyway, at various points in the film they’re interviewing the different musicians about their instruments and their respective functions in the orchestra. And surprise, surprise, each musician claims that his or her instrument is actually the most important one … Well, this is a bit what I feel like now talking about the meaning and the value of the bass. Because I really want to say that it is essential to music. Not many casual listeners are really aware of the instrument – until it’s missing, that is. Take the bass away, and everyone is like, ‘What happened?’ What I love about the instrument is that it straddles both melodic and rhythmic functions. To adapt one of my favourite moments from Spinal Tap, the bass is what connects the ice of the guitar and the fire of the drums – it is the lukewarm water, so to speak …
Tell us more about your relationship with drums and drummers.
Bass and drums clearly need to lock in – so to have a solid and sensitive drummer is every bit as important as getting on with the drummer, to me at least. It’s not good when you’re fighting the drums (in several senses of ‘fighting’). The simplest figure can be made to swing, to groove beautifully – and you can play the most ridiculous stuff but still suck, because there is no vibe, because you and the drummer don’t lock in. I’m still in touch with most of the drummers I ever worked with – not only that, but they’re among my best friends. I don’t know what it is: there’s something almost beyond music that connects me to them, and that I really value. That’s always my first self-imposed task when I’m on the bandstand with a new group of musicians, to lock in with the drummer – to make the drummer feel comfortable, and (if at all possible) to give the impression that I am feeling comfortable myself. Because once that’s taken care of a lot of work has already been done.
How did you get started?
I started out on guitar, when I was 13 or 14. At that time, just post-Woodstock, post-Isle of Wight, everyone wanted to play some instrument or other; it was a wonderful time to be young, such a vibrant scene. I chose guitar, but I was never really comfortable with a pick (no one ever told me that Jeff Beck played with his fingers!), and the guitar didn’t suit my temperament either. I wasn’t comfortable with having this flashy, spotlight-grabbing function in a band. I preferred to be slightly in the background, but still play an absolutely vital role. As I said before, if the bass is missing everyone suddenly notices that something’s ‘wrong’ or incomplete. So when the possibility of changing to bass presented itself I leapt at the opportunity. It felt like the most natural thing, after having played guitar for three or four years and developed a fairly good harmonic knowledge. To propel the music with driving, melodic figures soon became my mantra.
And what were your influences?
My earliest influences were probably Andy Fraser (with Free) and Gary Thain (with the Keef Hartley Band and then, crucially, with Uriah Heep). They just played such memorable bass lines, powerful and full of hooks. I also liked Rick Danko (The Band) and Leland Sklar, who worked and indeed works mainly as a session player. Thain and Sklar had this way of playing bass lines beyond the bar line, and their phrasing was absolutely astonishing. When I first heard Jaco Pastorius (on Weather Report’s Heavy Weather) … well, that was it. He combined the power and attitude of the electric bass with the sound and lyricism of the acoustic bass (which I’d always loved, almost by osmosis, listening to my father’s jazz albums – but without ever really paying much attention to who the bass players actually were). So a friend of mine ripped the frets out of my Ibanez Jazz Bass for me, and I haven’t looked back since. The next important influence was (and continues to be) Charlie Haden. What this man does with a single note, a simple melody, is riveting. His commitment to the one note that matters, his tone, his choice of notes, and obviously his compositions – I’m not able to stop raving about him. As far as upright bass players are concerned, I also really enjoy Viktor Krauss, Rob Wasserman and Danny Thompson. And Eberhard Weber has been a long, inspiring presence too. And I’ve only noticed over the last decade or so what a completely amazing bassist John Paul Jones is!
Do you get much time to listen to other music nowadays? If so, what is currentlyon your IPod?
Haha, I don’t have an IPod! I have a large collection of CDs, but I’m even fonder of my vinyl. I have a huge LP collection, and still love my Monk and Mingus albums, my psychedelic and underground LPs; I really dig reggae, and I’m crazy about Japanese, Celtic, Native American, Gypsy, Klezmer and other folk musics. Also Dvorak, Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Shostakovich, Janacek, Eleni Karaindrou’s soundtrack music … But it’s strange, you know. Although I still listen a lot to other bass players – Mick Karn and Mark Sandman come to my mind (both sadly deceased) – I’m most inspired by slide guitarists, steel guitar players and some of the more off-the-wall guitarists. I used to love Ry Cooder (not his last four albums, though). I dig Jerry Douglas, Daniel Lanois, Marc Ribot, David Torn, Michael Brook, Nicky Skopelitis – and Bill Frisell! Pat Metheny! Terje Rypdal! And an oud player like Anouhar Brahem, a saxophonist like Jan Garbarek, a drummer like Paul Motian … I could probably fill pages.
Can you tell us a bit about the current projects you’re involved in?
There’s ‘The Lesser Evil’. We play … well, world-jazz-fusion. Tolga Tümay, our guitarist (who also plays a lot of fretless guitar), is from Turkey, and he brings the whole Eastern, Balkan thing to the music. But he’s equally adept at playing country, jazz, screaming rock or Celtic folk. A very sensitive and creative player who always takes risks: so refreshing! And Brett Collings is a wonderfully musical drummer. Then there’s KGB, a classic rock band. We mainly cover tunes by Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk Railroad and Budgie – and with Karin Jerg we have the perfect singer to get into these vocal ranges. Guitarist Tyler Meiring and drummer Brian Boshoff complete the band. I still work with Highway Jam, an original blues & jazz-rock outfit comprising Mike Meiring on guitar (Tyler’s father) and Reuben Samuels on the drums (with whom I have worked since 1985). We’ve worked as a trio on and off since 1997, and are currently recording a new album. We often work with Kathy Raven, one of my favourite singers in the world. And finally there is this studio project with my longstanding friend Micky, ‘Michael Voy & Kai Alami’: we cover all those beautiful tunes from the 50s and 60s. Our second album will be out later in 2013. For our third, we’ll finally focus on our own compositions. Micky plays guitar, guitar synthesizer and percussion, and our music is very gentle, almost pastoral, but always with a slight edge.
Why ‘Kai Alami’?
When Tyler was four years old, he told his dad Mike that my surname was ‘Alami’ – you know, after Kyalami, the erstwhile South African Formula 1 race-track. Neither Mike nor I got it initially, but I loved the idea and decided to use this name for my solo projects. Especially because it emanated from the mind of a four-year-old.
I see you’ve also credited ‘Kai Ruder’ for some slide bass playing on some of your earlier solo albums. Who is he?
That fooled a few people initially! It’s me (in a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Ry Cooder), messing around with a slide on a fretted bass. As I said, I’m a sucker for slide.
Would you elaborate a little on your current ‘hardware’?
I’m really not an equipment slut and usually not very interested in what people play etc. But here goes: I have a 1987 Höfner electric upright 5-string bass, and my wife Edda has just given me an acoustic upright bass for Christmas – the date and country of origin eludes me, but it is a beautiful instrument that I’ve been playing non-stop. My fretless basses are a 1994 Samick 5-string (which I play at virtually at every gig), a Fender Jazz (probably 80s) and a Godin acoustic fretless 5-string bass guitar. I also have two fretted basses, a sunburst 62 Fender Precision (what can I say?) and a mid-90s limited edition 5-string Trace Elliot T-Bass. Amps are a little Gallien-Krueger 150E and my old warhorse, an H&H Bass Baby.
Would you be able to stipulate any high point of your career?
There are so many! One was definitely winning the Jazz Band of the Year category in the Old Mutual (South Africa) Music Awards in 2000. I would definitely say that the positive impressions and memories far outweigh the negative ones.
And low points?
Going down on the ‘Achille Lauro’ in 1994 and losing all my equipment, including my first Gallien-Krueger (150S) and one of the best basses I’ve ever had, a fretless 4-string Fender Jazz Bass (1988 American). (I did several ships in the early to mid-90s and had several awful experiences in this regard, like not getting paid for weeks and being stranded in Athens/ Greece, and then having to pay to get my equipment back.) But in human terms (seeing people cooperate and care for one another, or completely fail to do so) and in terms of giving me an opportunity for personal growth, the ‘Achille Lauro’ experience was also very important. The low points usually involve playing for an unappreciative crowd or not getting paid your due.
In the age of ever-advancing technology, sampling, not to mention attention deficit disorder, what is the future of the bass? Is there any advice you have for kids just starting out?
Our boys (who are at the time of this interview 12 and 10) are into gangster rap and not really into the musics I like. But they can still trip out on bass riffs like from ‘Black Country’ (Black Country Communion) or ‘Seven Nation Army’. And then I have to show them how to play these, plus the ubiquitous ‘Smoke on the Water’ (although the actual bass line is very different to the guitar part). They were also completely enthralled by the recent film about Rodriguez, Searching for Sugarman. Yes, listening conventions have changed (with people now celebrating DJs as pop stars), but I can’t see real instruments ever being totally replaced, and that includes the bass in its various forms. Advice? If you like a particular melody or groove, try to play it – on whatever instrument. Make it your own. And go through life with your ears wide open. Get together with people who like the kind of stuff you do (and don’t be shy getting together with people who like other stuff too) – play together, ‘music’ together: it’s the next best thing to sex, but the thrill lasts even longer.